So, what is this place?
Some anonymous room. It could be a motel room, a cheap one. There’s a bed, a dresser, a TV. Let me check … yeah, there’s even a Bible in the drawer.
How did I get here? That’s hard to say. Everything was so normal. You don’t think about your life, the fragility of it all. One day you’re going about your business and the next you are in some shabby Purgatory, like this motel room.
My first question has to do with time. Namely, the day and date. I have no watch, no phone. How the hell am I supposed to situate myself temporally? Modern man lives by his phone. Whoever (or whatever) has placed me here has deprived me of my most basic tool for survival. Without my phone, I’m nothing. I am no one.
Not that I care about contacting anyone. For the most part, I’m concerned with time.
I turn the room upside down looking for my phone. Maybe I’ve lost it, maybe someone has cleverly hidden it. I upend the mattress, yank all the drawers, search the bathroom. I even check the toilet tank, thinking it might be secreted in a baggie, like on one of those murder or spy shows.
Nothing. Not even a cheap-o rotary phone on the nightstand.
I restore things to their proper order and sit to think. At least I can still do that.
So, OK, I am incommunicado. Or am I?
I try flipping on the TV but nothing happens. It sits there mute, staring at me with its one blank eye. I check the plug; it’s connected to the outlet. There should be juice. The rest of the room has electricity; I can feel the AC. Did they forget to pay the cable bill?
I check my look in the mirror. I am wearing a T-shirt and jeans, the same clothes I wore when I checked in. At least, that's what I recall. It's been a few days. Or has it been?
I crack open the door. A bit of light falls in. I peek out, heart pounding. I see a walkway, a hip-high guardrail, a piece of striped pavement, a few scattered cars.
The air carries a whiff of death.
How can I explain this smell? It’s the scent of fresh rain in the desert. The reek of putrefying flesh, sweat from an old man’s armpit. Unidentifiable, untraceable, an omen.
I shut the door and hook the chain, opting to peek out the curtains. The same limited view presents itself. I count the sedans in the parking lot: eight, in all. Is mine among them?
A small card on the nightstand catches my eye. I pick it up, squinting in the murky light: DAY-GLO INN. I never heard of the place. I turn to look back out the window. On the freeway I see a sign that might glow neon-red after dark: DAY-GLO. So, okay, this is a real place.
But there’s no traffic on the freeway.
None I can see.
Where the hell am I?
My gut rebels against the idea of opening the door again -- but I do.
I leave it open for about five minutes, sitting next to it, my knees preventing the door from swinging open wider. I just want to watch and listen.
I breathe slowly, smelling Death, the Destroyer of Worlds, on the air. A breeze stirs up leaves and dust on the walkway. If I were to breathe in that wind, to walk out there, I would die.
Maybe that’s what happened to all the drivers and pedestrians. Maybe I'm the only one left.
I sit until my butt and lower back can't take anymore and stand up. I am fully dressed but there's nowhere to go. I’d have to be an idiot to think otherwise. The weird light refuses to suggest where we are on the sundial. Is it noon? Three o’clock? Earlier? Later?
I stretch, working the kinks out of my back -- and realize the door has slowly swung open. It’s calibrated to do that. With a cry, I push the door shut with my toe. It latches securely.
With nothing better to do, I grab a shower. There is a full supply of bath stuff in the cabinet: soap, shaving cream, deodorant. I apply them all, in frugal amounts, enough to refresh myself. I dry my hair and put my clothes back on. At some point, I’ll have to go No. 1 and No. 2, but there is nothing in my stomach. After combing my hair, I return to the bedroom.
I realize it is full-on dark outside. The Day-Glo sign glows furnace red, attracting flies.
Where the hell is everyone? They ought to be going to nightclubs, restaurants, movies, parties, family get-togethers, bowling alleys, concerts. People should be working or getting off-shift. There ought to be some life, intelligent or otherwise.
I sit on the bed and wait. Time slides by like a snake on a road shoulder. I see pictures in my mind’s eye – a woman, a child, a house – but they seem far off, unreal.
Exhausted, I curl up and go to sleep. My dreams are nothing special. Without physical or mental activity, there can be no dreaming. What does it mean when this happens? Are you already dead?
I wake to a light rapping on the door. Unafraid, I crack it open. Through the slit I see a tray of food. It looks like breakfast -- bacon, eggs, toast. What the hell? I open the door enough to drag the tray across the threshold. I sit and hungrily clean my plate. My heart rate perks up, and I can think a bit more clearly as the protein hits my bloodstream. There’s no coffee, so I pour myself a cup of lukewarm tap water. Not the best, but it'll do.
I put the tray out for someone to pick up and wonder: are there others in the building?
I pull the chair out from the writing desk and balance carefully on it (who knows if there’s a medic on-site). Pushing with my toes, I stretch my left arm upward and rap on the ceiling. Dust sifts into my eyes.
“Hello?” I cry, my voice creaky with disuse.
I knock again, realizing there’s probably a foot of concrete and three inches of plush carpeting overhead. But it’s worth a try.
More silence, taunting me.
Frustrated, I hop down and pound on the east wall, then on the west. Are there people on either side of me?
I stomp on the floor. “Hello? Hello?”
“Fuck,” I whisper, trying not to get worked up. Still, someone served me a tray of food. There must be other people. If not, then I must be dead, right?
I clutch my head. I can’t be dead, can I?
To test the theory that I’m merely a semi-cognizant corpse, I pinch my thigh as hard as I can. Ouch! There’s crescent-shaped mark! Yes, I am alive. I am not a corpse.
I stretch out on the bed and drift asleep, waking hours later (I think) to a rosy sky. It’s dawn – dawn of the third day. Or so I tell myself.
I discover a pack of playing cards and sit to play solitaire. My dad played this game, as I recall. He’d play for hours at a stretch, keeping Standard score. He jotted down rows of numbers on a legal pad. I don’t go for that; life’s too short.
I play dozens of hands, losing every time. Someone raps sharply on the door. I hook the chain and open it. There’s a tray of food: steak, baked potato. I pull the food in and eat ravenously.
Clearly, I am someone’s prisoner, but whose? Why would anyone hold me prisoner? Who am I?
Hours, days, weeks pass. I eat in silence, probe for additional prisoners, stand vigil at my window. I have learned to pray, summoning visions of my wife and daughter as if they were ghosts in an ancient temple. I sit at the door, sniffing the air and recalling this antiquated concept known as “society."
On a day I think is Thursday but might be Sunday, I receive a visitor. She has been bringing me food. I can only hear her voice on the stairwell; she will come no closer.
“What’s happening in the world?” I ask. “Where is everyone?”
“They are all like you,” she answers, her voice drifting up the stairs. “They are in hiding. It is not safe.”
“What are we hiding from?”
“From what? How?”
She doesn’t answer for a long time. “It jumps from person to person. I do not understand.”
“How many are dead?”
“Too many. They cannot burn all the bodies.”
I scratch my clean-shaven jaw. “How long have I been here?”
“How long will I stay?”
I stare at the Day-Glo sign. “Do you know how I got here?”
“The same way everyone else did.”
“Where is everyone else?”
“All around you.”
“Who are you? Why are you able to stay outside?”
“I am the caretaker.”
“Are you an angel?”
Silence. I never hear from her again.
Six months. Christ Jesus, it feels like an eternity. The days have blurry edges, like roads in a desert.
To fill the hours, I decide to exercise. Twenty push-ups a day to start, then 50, then 100. Sixty chin-ups. Two hours of stretches. I can bend like a paper clip to clasp my toes. I shed weight, eating smaller portions. After a while, my dreams return with a vengeance. Activity feeds my imagination and makes me mentally tired.
One day, I glance out to see snow drifting from a slate-gray sky. I can’t be sure, but there seem to be lights on the freeway. It is impossible to tell whether I am awake or dreaming.
Solitaire bores me as I can no longer lose. The scoring makes me sleepy. I feel strong, ready to slip my bonds. I start eating again, trying to gain weight. It is entirely possible I will soon feel like leaving my room. When I open the door, the oppressive scent of death no longer assails my nostrils.
One day, I find a pot of coffee outside. I drink the whole thing. The caffeine hits my system like a sledgehammer, so hard I immediately pound out 100 pushups. Bathed in sweat, I suddenly desire sex. I jerk off in the shower. My heart is pumping.
Around me, I hear disembodied voices -- people talking, TVs at low volume. I switch on the set to watch the news.
That day, my dinner fails to arrive. I crack open the door and listen for footfalls, the familiar sounds of my caretaker.
Traffic whooshes past on the freeway.
The air feels light and clean.
I step all the way out. The trees riot with leaves, and I feel I could float away. I let the door swing shut, leaving nothing behind that I need. The sun is high, and the possibilities are endless.
My only question is: What's next?