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Tuesday, 9:45 A.M.
The dark of unconsciousness swirled at the edge of her mind like black coffee. She first became aware of a sound, small and distant, barely perceptible. It was a chirp, made by a bird near a window. It chirped again and then fell silent, its small cry replaced by the louder, harsher noise of rubber wheels, like those of a shopping cart, being pushed along a concrete walk. A wobbling wheel released a rhythmic slapping sound. The noises of distant cars and trucks traveling quickly along a remote road filtered through the fog of oblivion, from which she was slowly rising like a bubble from the bottom of the ocean.
She tried to swallow, but her mouth was dry as sandstone and her tongue was slow to respond. Her lips hurt. They were dry and cracked. Inhaling deeply, she winced as an ice pick-like pain stabbed her side. The air that passed her lips tasted bad. It was thick with cigarette smoke and the smell of stale beer. Sleepily moving the fingers of her right hand, she felt the coarse fabric of a cheap bedspread beneath her. The material felt rough and old, and the dirty threads that formed the yet unseen pattern were stiff to the touch. The bedcover felt alien, unknown. She was sure she had never before touched it.
The darkness began to call her again. The bliss of oblivion beckoned and tugged at her mind, but she resisted it. Several times she had come close to waking, to opening her eyes to see what surrounded her, but each time she had surrendered to the hypnotic chant of dreams, to the warmth of unconsciousness. Tempting as sleepwas, she knew that the time for sleeping had long passed. By an act of determined will, she forced opened her eyes and blinked back the foggy dregs of slumber. She was staring at a ceiling that had once been white but was now tobacco brown from neglect and age. A cobweb swayed in a lazy waltz, moved by an air current too subtle to feel.
She raised a hand to her face, and pain raced through her body like a thousand tiny bayonets. Her right side burned, her head throbbed percussively, and the skin of her face was painfully sensitive to touch. She groaned. Things were out of place, something was wrong, but her mind was muddy and slow. Full consciousness eluded her. Bits and pieces of rational thought spun wildly through her brain like confetti in a strong breeze.
"What did you do last night?" she asked herself. Her voice sounded muffled and unfamiliar. She gently eased her legs over the side of the bed and let her feet touch the floor. A deep, aching pain tightened in her back. Looking at her feet, she saw an old pair of Nikes. She had gone to sleep with her shoes on. Beneath her feet was a thin pile, gold carpet with brown stains that looked as old as dirt itself. She had no memory of the stains. For that matter, she had no memory of the carpet or even the shoes she wore.
Raising her head she stared at the off-white drapes that hung limply from a gaudy curtain rod, which looked as if it had been pulled from an old, dilapidated Victorian. The unfamiliar curtains were thin and threadbare, and clearly they had not been cleaned in the last ten years.
The heavy blanket of wooziness began to recede only to be replaced by questions. Where am I? Why am I here? How did I get here? Why is there so much pain?
She forced herself to stand. The room began to spin, and a sea of nausea raged within her, forcing her to steady herself by placing a hand on the mattress. At first she wanted to lie down again, to crumple onto the bed and wait for a better time to rise, but she resisted the urge. She had no idea how long she had been asleep, but she knew it had been too long.
A marred wood nightstand stood next to the bed. On it was an inexpensive clock radio which appeared new, as if it had just been taken out of its box. Blue numbers shone weakly: 9:45. That seemed late, although she was uncertain why. Closing her eyes, she waited for the spinning to stop. She took a deep breath, but this time she inhaled slowly to avoid another stab of pain. Holding the air in her lungs for a moment, she released it in a long, steady exhalation through pressed lips that made a soft whistling sound. She repeated the act several times before her stomach calmed and the dizziness evaporated.
Standing erect again, she wondered if she had spent the night drinking and was now hung over. But that thought seemed misconceived. She had no memory of drinking last night or any night. What then? The flu? If so, it was the worst case she had ever experienced. Her body was weak and sore; her mind muddled and foggy. It was hard to remember anything.
Unconsciously, she licked her lips and was again reminded of her parching thirst. Rounding the bed with deliberate steps, she made her way to an open door at the back of the room. As she had guessed, it was a bathroom. She flicked on the light switch. Inside were a scarred and heavily scratched fiberglass tub and shower, a white toilet with chipped enamel and a rust-streaked bowl, and a freestanding sink. Turning on the water, she watched as brown-tinged liquid flowed from the faucet. After a minute, the water ran clear. There were no plastic cups from which to drink, so she cupped her hands, filled them with the cool water, and brought them to her lips. The water had an odor to it and tasted like copper. She drank it anyway, and then splashed the liquid on her face. It stung. "Ouch," she cried softly.
Taking a yellowed towel from a plastic holder mounted on the wall between the sink and toilet, she dried her hands and dabbed at her face. The towel felt sandpaper rough against her flesh. Pulling the towel away, she looked into the cracked, oval mirror that hung precariously over the washbowl. She gasped loudly, faltered back, and dropped the towel.
The woman in the mirror was a stranger. Nothing about her was familiar. In utter disbelief, she pushed a wavering hand against the cold glass until her fingertips gently touched the image. The strange woman in the mirror did the same. Pulling her hand back, she touched her own hair. The woman in the mirror mimicked the action. She was seeing a true reflection. The woman was certainly her, but why didn't she recognize her own face?
She studied the image. The hair was shoulder length and raven black with a part on the right side. Her eyes were green and rimmed by smudged mascara and eyeliner. Her skin was clear but reflected a pale yellow. As she stepped closer to the mirror, she realized that the yellow hue was from the weak fluorescent light over the sink. The more she examined the reflection, the more puzzled she became. How could she not know her own face? And the face was a mystery in other ways. It was pretty, on the young side of middle age. But it was also—damaged. The lower lip was slightly swollen and creased by a small cut. A tiny rivulet of blood had dried on her chin from where the cut had bled. The skin of her face, which had at first appeared yellow, now paled in the glow of the dim light. Still there was some discoloration; a slight, uneven pink stippled the tissue. It reminded her of a windburn she would occasionally get as a child when ... when ... She closed her eyes and tried to recall when she had been a child, but no memories surfaced. Focusing as hard as she could, she tried to raise the spectral memories of her past. Surely she had had parents, gone to school, made friends, but no images came to mind—no names, no recollections.
Panic seized her as realization crashed down on her. The sick, burning nausea returned in a hot flood. Ironically, an icy chill ran down her spine. Her brain fired confusing questions that she could not answer. Her eyes danced around the drab little room. "Tub," she said, pointing at the fiberglass bathtub. Then in rapid, staccato words she uttered: "Toilet. Sink. Mirror. Floor." She turned and continued her frenetic inventory. "I know these things. Door. Hinges. Screws." She touched the jamb and then crossed the threshold into the motel room. "Bed. Carpet. Television. Radio alarm. Fire alarm. I know all these things. Why don't I know who I am?" The last words came out choked and uneven.
The pounding in her heart increased geometrically, thudding so fast that she was sure it would explode violently and she would drop dead to the floor. Turning, she took in the room again with its dirty carpet and moldering walls. A cheap painting of an old California mission hung crookedly from a nail. An aged Zenith television sat on a battered dresser. A thin film of dust covered the furniture.
Another bolt of pain, inflamed by her rapid respiration and agitated motions, ripped through her side. "I know everything in this room, but I don't know the room," she said to herself. But that was wrong, she realized a moment later. She could identify everything in the room for what it was, but it all lacked familiarity. The clock radio was easy to identify, not because she had seen it before, but because it was like all other clock radios.
Staggering to the bed, she slumped down on its edge and laid her head in her hands. She calmed herself, willing her heart to slow and her breathing to settle. "Think," she commanded herself. "Think. Panic can only make things worse. Logic works; fear hinders." The last phrase seemed familiar and brought a small degree of comfort. Rising from her perch on the bed, she began to pace the small space.
"Let's start with what we know," she muttered as if she were talking to a close friend. "I'm in a motel room. But where?" No answer came. She looked around the room again, this time more carefully. Then she saw a key with a dark blue plastic tag attached to it. The dull and washed-out lettering read:
Pretty Penny Motel
Highway 58 & 3rd
"Mojave? Where on earth is Mojave?" She clutched the key tightly. It was a clue—a solid, concrete connection to reality. "Okay," she said in a whisper. "If I'm in a motel, then there must be a record of my having checked in. The desk clerk must have a receipt for the room." That thought made her stop. If she had checked into the motel, then she must have paid for the room. That meant that she must have money or a credit card. Either would mean that she had a purse or a wallet. But where was it?
Still clutching the key, she walked back to the bed and looked over the nightstand. Nothing. Slumping to her knees, she searched the floor and even under the bed, but found nothing. "The closet," she said, rising to her feet. The act of standing from a kneeling position hurt and she groaned deeply. What has happened to me?
The closet was empty. No clothing hung from the hangers, no handbag rested on the floor. She searched each drawer in the dresser and found only a thin and worn telephone directory. At the top of the phone book were the words: PACIFIC BELL YELLOW PAGES 1999. 1999? Was that the year? The book looked old and well used. Most likely it was out of date like everything else around her. That would mean that it was sometime later than 1999. How much later, she could not tell.
Why could she find no purse? Why was there no wallet with identification? Why ...? She froze as the most obvious possibility broke the surface of her mind. Her body was sore, her lip was split, and she had no money or credit cards. Had she been robbed? It was logical and it ' would answer many questions, including her physical condition. A robber might have attacked her and in a struggle beat her and—
The last thought was unwelcome and sickening. Had it been more than a robbery? Had more than her money been taken? Had she been—? A cold finger ran up her spine, and she shuddered. Surely she would remember that. If nothing else, she would have to remember being attacked, being violated. Or would she? Wasn't it just such a thing that could push a woman into a psychological hole—a place to hide from something so horrific, so appalling? In such cases, it wasn't just the body that was raped. The rapist also violated the mind, the character of the woman, the fragile psyche of a human, and that often took much longer to heal than any bodily wounds.
Returning to the mirror in the bathroom, she once again studied her image. This time she removed the white cotton T-shirt she wore. Pulling the garment over her head caused her side to ache and her head to throb. She continued disrobing, removing her loose-fitting jeans and undergarments. She studied herself in the mirror and was shocked to see a large, narrow, bluish bruise that ran from her left shoulder to the bottom right of her rib cage. In addition, a deep purple discoloration covered the upper part of her left arm and shoulder. Another bruise ran across her hips just behind where the elastic band of her underwear would be. Her right arm bore no marks. Raising her hands, she studied her wrists. They too were unmarked. If she had been in a struggle, there would have been bruises on her wrists and upper arms. An ache in her foot caused her to look down. She was still wearing the Nikes. She had tugged the jeans over her shoes. Placing a foot on the edge of the toilet, she untied the laces and removed the sneaker and white sock. She repeated the act with the other foot. It had been her right foot that ached and she examined it closely. It too was bruised, and the skin at the top of her foot was broken.
She continued her self-examination until she had checked every part of her body. Finally, she dismissed the idea of a physical attack. The markings seemed wrong. But something had happened to her, and she was at a loss to explain what.
She dressed again, washed the blood and makeup from her face, and exited the bathroom. The unsettled feeling of panic rose in her again. Nothing made sense. Once more, her eyes traced the room, looking for any clue that would help her to discover who she was. If there were any clues, they were well hidden. Maybe there was something out there, outside the room.
The thought made her uncomfortable, although she could not tell why. Walking to the drapes, she pulled them aside and peeked out the window. The white sun shone down through a cloudless sky. Just outside her room was an asphalt parking lot in grave disrepair. Small but persistent weeds had pushed up through cracks in the macadam. Walking across the lot was an elderly Hispanic woman. She was pushing a maid's cart. The cart had a wobbly front wheel. Only two cars were parked on the lot: an old, heavily dented, beige Volkswagen Beetle and a yellow Ford Pinto with oxidized paint and a cracked windshield. An eighteen-wheeler was parked curbside, where the lot met the road that ran along the front of the property. The road itself was wide, with two lanes of traffic going in each direction. Cars and tractor-trailer rigs drove noisily by the motel.
The surrounding terrain was sparse and foreboding. Thick-limbed trees, their pointed leaves aimed skyward like upraised organic spears, dotted the empty field across the road. The ground was a depressing brown. She was in the desert, that much was clear.
Closing the curtain, she stepped away from the window and waited for her eyes to readjust to the dark room. "What now?" she asked herself. She wondered about the two cars out front. Could one of them be hers? If so, then there would surely be a DMV registration form that would have not only her name, but also her address. And maybe she would find more, a datebook or piece of luggage. Maybe her purse or wallet was in the car, left there as a result of her amnesia.
Amnesia! The word struck her hard. She had not thought of her failed memory in that way before, but it was the only word that would do. "Amnesia," she said tentatively, as if some evil magic were associated with it, as if its very mention could summon dragons or demons.
She forced aside her rising sense of fear and focused on the cars outside. How could she tell if one of them belonged to her? She had no car keys, and neither car looked familiar. The front desk would know. She had stayed in motels before and had always been asked to leave the license number of her car with the motel clerk. For a brief moment, a picture of her hand filling out a form flashed across her mind. A half-second later, a maddening fugue replaced the image. Still, the memory gave her something to work with. Grabbing the room key from the dresser, she shoved it into her pocket and stepped outside.
The air was hot and dry, and the heat stung her face. Remembering the time on the clock, she knew that it was no more than a few minutes after 10:00, but the temperature was already scorching, causing her tender face and chapped lips to hurt all the more. Waves of heat rose around her feet as she stepped from the cracked concrete walk in front of her room onto the black pavement. It was as if she were walking through an oven.
The motel complex's L-shape bordered two sides of the parking lot. To her right, one leg of the L ran at a right angle to the side of the building her room was on. At the end of the leg was an office. The building was a one-story structure covered with marred and cracked stucco. Its red clay tile roof reflected the midmorning sun back to the bright sky. Overhead, a hawk circled in lazy loops. The starkness of the terrain, the heat of the day, and the dilapidated condition of the building gave her a sense of otherworldliness, as if she had been transported to a distant desert planet.
It took less than forty steps for her to cross the lot and reach the office, but it seemed like a trek of several miles. Her stomach was upset again, and her head throbbed. Grabbing the worn brass handle on the glass door that separated the outside from the office, she pulled it and quickly entered. The office was air-conditioned, and the cool air enveloped her in a cold caress. At first it felt wonderful, but the sudden change in temperature made her woozy. She stopped just inside the door and raised a hand to her forehead, as if doing so would push away the darkness that threatened to flood over her.
"Hey, you all right?" someone asked.
She looked up to see a young man no older than twenty-one standing behind the counter that divided the small lobby from the front desk. His hair was red and cut short, and he wore two earrings in each ear. "What?"
"I asked if you were okay. You look sick or something."
"The heat ... the air conditioning ..."
"Ah," he said matter-of-factly. "It happens all the time. People don't realize how hot August gets around here."
August. It is August. "I'll be fine in a minute. I just need to catch my breath." She took a couple of deep breaths, wincing with each inhalation. The wooziness subsided, and the room stopped spinning.
"You want some water or something? I got good water back here. Not the junk that comes out of the tap."
She recalled the brown fluid from the faucet in her room. "Yes, that would be nice. Thank you."
"No sweat, lady. I can't have you passing out in the lobby." He stepped into a side room, then reemerged with a small paper cup in his hand. "Here you go," he said, holding the cup out over the counter. She walked forward and took it, slowly sipping the clear, cold fluid. It tasted wonderful.
"No, thank you," she replied and handed the cup back. As she did, she looked up into the young man's face. It was pimpled and unshaven; thin, reddish peach fuzz covered his chin. His appearance was rough, but there was kindness in his eyes. As he stared back, his expression showed concern. "Are you sure you're okay?" he asked.
"I'm fine," she said. At least for the moment.
"If you say so," he replied. "What can I do for you?"
At that moment, she realized that she had given no thought about what to say. "I'm ... I mean, I was—" She stopped abruptly, wishing she had given this more consideration. What should she say? Hi, I have no idea who I am or how I got here. I'm beat up and confused. Got any ideas? That seemed unwise. Another concern crossed her mind. What if she owed him money for the room? She had no way of paying. He could become angry and call the police. But then, maybe that would be good. Maybe they could help her figure out who she was. She decided to start slowly. "I'm in room one-ten and I can't seem to find my receipt. Do you have one for me?"
"They're supposed to give you one when you check in," he said. "Did you come in last night?"
She had no idea, but that seemed right. "Yes."
"Let's see. Here it is. I'll have to make a photocopy of it. We have to keep a copy for our files."
"Sure you don't want more water?"
Again he disappeared into the side room. When he returned he had an 8 1/2-by-11-inch piece of paper with him. He handed it to her. She took it with a shaky hand. The paper was a reproduction of a small note. The receipt had the name of the motel and its address in block letters at the top. Underneath was a barely legible scrawl. She found the line that read Name. Next to it was printed Nick Blanchard. She was nonplussed. "Are you sure this is the right receipt?"
He looked at the original. "It's the one for room one-ten. The night manager could have screwed things up again. That happens sometimes. It's easy to write down the wrong room number or switch a couple of the numbers around. I've done it myself. If you tell me your name, I can go through the receipts and—"
"There's no need for that," she said quickly. She studied the paper again. The check-in time was listed as 11:30 P.M. One night was paid in advance. That's a relief. At least I won't be reneging on a bill. It also meant that she was out on the street.
"Did you want to check out now?" the clerk asked.
Nick Blanchard. She mulled the name over, ignoring the question. Did she write that name? That seemed unlikely. The night clerk would have thought it strange. Did she arrive with someone else? A husband? A boyfriend? Who was Nick Blanchard?
"Lady, do you want to check out or not?"
"Sure she does," came a new voice. She spun around and saw a man standing in the doorway. His eyes were fixed on her. "No one wants to stay in this dump two nights running." He released the door and walked into the lobby. He held out his hand. "Hi, I'm Nick Blanchard."
In silence, she took his hand.