I jolt awake, foggy at first. I’m sitting in an armchair, hands gripping the armrests, leather cool under my palms. Directly ahead of me, mounted on a beige wall, is an oil painting. Men in dark suites, and women in long dresses mill about in a sunny park.
I’m wearing a sharp tuxedo. Personally tailored. The jacket is unbuttoned, revealing a wrinkled dress shirt. My pleated black slacks are soft and comfortable. Shiny Oxfords complete the ensemble.
Where am I?
I turn my head from side to side. Plain walls, evenly-spaced doors and room placards, stand stoic guard down carpeted corridors. Each side is a mirror of the other. Ceiling-mounted lights illuminate the carpet’s brown and black diamond pattern. Clean and orderly. A five-star hotel, four at the least. But which one, and how did I get here?
A worse question occurs to me, one that drives out the others. Who am I? My name is there, ready to be taken but each time I reach for it, it slithers away like a wriggling eel.
Think, damn it. Think.
My mind bumps into one wall after another. It’s an awful feeling. Lost, helpless, insecure. The answers are beyond those walls but they’re impenetrable, inscrutable, silent.
I push myself up, stand on stiff limbs, and gaze at the painting again.
A pinprick of memory stabs through the wall. I owned this painting, or rather a reproduction of it. Sunday afternoon on some island I’d never heard of. I made an important decision, a life changing one, while staring at this painting. I squeeze my eyes closed, take in the darkness, and reach for the full memory. All I get are the dregs. Nevertheless, they’re powerful. There’s a bone-deep sadness there, a twinge of fatalistic resolve, and even a little curiosity. Despite their power, I can’t resolve these feelings into anything concrete.
My hands tremble as I smooth down the wrinkles on my dress shirt.
The hallway is quiet. Not even the sound of guests, ambient street noise or the ever-present buzz of hotel air-conditioning. I stand there concentrating, listening. I make out the faint electric hum of the hallway light bulbs. It’s like I’m in the vacuum of space, where sound waves die unheard, and the hum is my spacesuit keeping me alive in an airless void.
Sudden inspiration has me patting my jacket. I find a pair of glasses in my breast pocket but ignore them. I almost weep with relief when my hand comes down on the bulge of a wallet in the inner pocket of my jacket. I pull it out. It’s a dark leather like the chair, but more worn. Soft and pliable, where the chair had some strength left. Barely breathing, I rip it open. Inside is a driver’s license, credit cards, and a hundred dollars in twenties.
The license says my name is Jacob Sheppard. Jake. It doesn’t feel right. My name should fit, shouldn’t it? It should feel as uniquely mine as my hand or foot.
The picture on my license is of a man in his late thirties. Pale skin. Dark reddish hair. Trimmed mustache and beard, blue eyes framed by glasses. A hand to my face confirms the mustache and beard. I rub at it, feeling the soft facial hair.
The credit cards are mine too if the silver lettering is to be believed.
I still can’t dredge up anything about myself and it turns my stomach sour. A hundred hastily-formed explanations coalesce and then melt into oblivion under scrutiny until only one remains.
I’ve had an aneurism or something similarly catastrophic. I need medical help.
“All right. All right,” I mumble, tamping down the panic. “Go get help. There’s plenty of people who can help.”
Turning to the right, I see elevator doors. Taped to one of them is a piece of bright yellow construction paper. Scrawled on it, in dark green crayon, are two words.
The message is for me, I’m sure of it, so I snatch it off the door, fold it and jam it in my pocket.
Gratitude and fear mix. The second word is ominous, but someone’s guiding me and that bolsters my courage.
I take the elevator down and when the doors glide open, I look out on an empty lobby. Sunlight pours in through tall plate-glass windows. The striated marble floor, buffed to a high shine, reflects the glare.
The elevator dings, prompting me to step out. I take two tentative ones and peer around.
The reception desk has no one behind it, but above in gold lettering is the name Cheshire Hotel. It means nothing to me, and there is nothing familiar about the empty lounge bar, or the abandoned concierge desk. The entire lobby appears pristine, the smell of some lemon-scented product hanging in the air. The hum of the ceiling’s florescent lights are my only company.
“Hello?” My cracked voice echoes about the lobby, rebounding off the walls and empty furniture. I clear my throat and try again. “Is anyone here?”
No answer. The hotel can’t be closed, and there’s no sign of it being under renovation. It’s midday or at least looks like it. There must be guests in the rooms above, and if there are, there must be hotel staff to cater to them, but no one’s around.
I find the phone at the concierge desk, pick up the handset, and listen. No ring tone at all. I try dialing, but the buttons don’t produce tones. So much for calling nine-one-one.
The emptiness and silence gives me the creeps. I’m like a lone man wandering the interior of a snow globe.
Outside, parked cars line the street and more buildings stand tall across the way, but there are no pedestrians. And worse, no traffic. Not a single car, minivan, or box truck passes. There are no waiting vehicles at the intersection.
My blood runs cold. Has there been some disaster? A chemical weapon attack? If that were the case, there’d be evidence of panic, of chaos, and there is none. Fear washes through me, and I force myself to turn away from the windows. The hotel lobby must have some clue to make sense of this hollow madness.
A flash of bright yellow catches my eye by the check-in counter. It’s out of place in a room so meticulously orderly and clean. Another piece of construction paper lays crooked on the hardwood surface. I hurry over to it and read. The words Saint Mary’s Confessional and Hurry are scrawled in that same handwriting.
Another memory breaks through. I made a confession to a priest, but not in a church. He was a small man, wizened and wrinkled, with kind eyes. Soft hands enclosed one of mine on a hospital bed. Reluctantly, I confessed to a series of illegal acts. I should’ve been guilty but all I felt was pride and a touch of fear. What if he broke our confidence and told someone? He wouldn’t do that, would he?
The crisp construction paper folds neatly and I tuck it away beside the first. These notes are my only clue. They’ve been left for me like a trail of breadcrumbs. Without anything else to go on, it’d be foolish to ignore them.
All right. I’ll find Saint Mary’s.