The first time I woke up someplace unexpected, it was a bank vault.
I thought I was still dreaming, seeing as how I was naked. But the cold metal walls felt so real against my fingertips. The stacks of bills smelled like real money. The blaring siren was so loud, it couldn’t be my alarm clock.
And it wasn’t.
Since I hadn’t stolen anything, all they could get me for was trespassing and indecent exposure. The bank, anxious to avoid questions about their vault’s security, dropped the charges on the condition I kept my mouth shut. Seemed fair. They even leant me a poncho for the walk home.
On my way out the front door, I ran into my neighbor Fred. He was stumbling down the block in plaid pajamas. Turns out, I wasn’t the only person that had woken up someplace unexpected. Thousands of us had. The city was in chaos. I headed home.
My front door was ajar. I crept through the house in my poncho, peering around corners and inside closets. The intruder was gone. The whole place smelled like hooch, and my fridge was raided of everything but the condiments. A five-dollar bill sat on the counter, next to a note that read: “Sorry, woke up here and got hungry. This should cover some of it. -Jim.”
The pictures on the mantle were all out of order. I imagined the rudely awakened Jim stumbling around in his pajamas, stuffing burnt toast into his mouth, still drunk on bad booze. Knocking everything over, doing a terrible job of putting it back. The pictures I’d so painstakingly hidden in the back row now glared at me from front and center.
Penny and I, drunk-faced and stuffed into a giant Disneyland teacup, buried to our necks in sand by the Venice Beach boardwalk, made-up like zombies and laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe, during a Halloween party at our place. Her place, now. My face in the pictures leered at me, as if to say, “Don’t you wish you were still me?”
I rearranged the mantle until all I could see were tactful travel photos devoid of smiling faces. Then I showered and did some yard work. Neighbors stumbled by in an assortment of sleeping attire throughout the day.
This time I put on some boxers before crawling into bed. Good thing I did. I sat up, rubbed my eyes, and got a mouthful of salt air. Cold water lapped against my body. A gaggle of surfers smirked at me from the Redondo Beach pier. I waved. Had they fallen asleep in their swim trunks, cradling their surfboards, hoping to wake up at the beach and save themselves the walk?
On my way home, I tried not to think about the last time I’d been in Redondo. Penny and I spent our second anniversary on the pier, eating sushi and counting dolphins, duking it out on Street Fighter, the next day, a bus blindsided her sister. After Tina’s funeral, Penny said she needed some time. A week or two, to get her head straight. Six months later, the divorce papers showed up in the mail. I don’t know if she heard any of my messages or read any of my emails. But she never answered them.
My door was locked when I got home. I let myself in with the hide-a-key, thankful Jim hadn’t returned. My relief evaporated when I heard footsteps on the staircase. I looked around for a place to hide.
It was the new girl down the street, tanned legs jutting from beneath my old Pink Floyd shirt. Makeup smudges cradled her eyes.
“I woke up here.” She headed for the door. “Can I borrow the shirt?”
“Sure. There’s coffee–”
She shut the door behind her.
I sighed, flipped on the news. The city had devolved into mass confusion. Commuters were falling asleep on buses, only to wake up in rooftop bars. The mayor found a convent of nuns sleeping on his office floor. Flash mob pajama parties became an instant fad. Sleeping insurance was a real possibility.
The local news anchor called them “rude awakenings.” The phrase stuck. Scientists were hard at work, promising answers soon.
On the back porch, hummingbirds darted around the old oak tree, fighting for position at the feeder. Penny always loved hummingbirds, the way they buzzed like giant bees. The feeder ended up in one of the boxes she left on my doorstep, the day after the divorce papers arrived. I couldn’t remember to do the damn dishes, but I always kept the feeder full. I had this ridiculous notion that the hummingbirds might lure Penny back.
They never did.
That night, I was so tired I forgot all about the rude awakenings. I woke to a familiar alarm blaring in my ears. Finally, my own bed again. It felt like I hadn’t woken up here in months. The big down comforter, the loose spring–
This wasn’t my bed. Not anymore. I threw off the covers and hit the lights. I stood naked in our old room. The bed, the dresser, the nightstand were all exactly where I’d left them, ten months ago. Of all the rotten luck.
I cracked the door. Silence. I crept downstairs. Filtered sunlight drew fractal patterns against the living room walls. Bare walls. No pictures, no artwork. Each room looked just as I remembered it, except for the walls. As if Penny had scrubbed our history clean.
Keys rattled in the front door. I glanced down, saw that I was still naked and dove behind the couch.
I sighed. “It’s me.”
Penny stood in the doorway, wearing orange striped pajamas. She held an armload of framed photos.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
I squinted at the photos. “Are those mine?”
“No! I mean, yes. I woke up in your house. The new one.”
“I woke up here. Hey, can you shut the door? I’m naked.”
She kicked the door shut. For an uncomfortable moment we just stared at each other. Then she set the photos down and headed upstairs.
After a brief commotion, she came back down. “Sorry, laundry day. This is all I’ve got.”
She tossed me a pair of frilly boxers with the word PINK emblazoned on the back. I shot her a glare, but she’d already disappeared into the kitchen. I put them on.
Penny returned with a pot of coffee and two mugs. She slumped into the corner of the couch. Her hair had gotten longer, and her face thinner. It hurt to look at her after all this time, but it hurt worse to look away.
“This rude awakening thing is exhausting.”
I sat down across from her. “Yeah.”
“I’m sorry I stole your stuff.”
I waved my hand at the blank walls. “What happened to yours?”
“I threw them out.” Her expression clouded over. “They reminded me of Tina.”
“Then why take mine?”
She chewed on her lip. Her fingers grazed the photos.
“Disneyland. You remember how much liquor we smuggled in?”
“Enough rum to conquer Tom Sawyer Island. Those poor kids.”
She laughed. Tension eased from my shoulders.
“I thought you were gonna drown when you went overboard on that pirate ride.”
“I almost did. Thank god you had enough rum left to bribe the attendants, or we’d still probably be in jail.”
She flipped to the next picture, puddle-jumping in a Hollywood rainstorm. Then the next, surfboard headstands at the Marina Del Rey harbor. And the next, stuffed into fake sumo suits, locked in an eternal struggle. We talked until the coffee ran out. Then we cracked open beers and talked some more. I forgot that I was wearing women’s underwear, and that the walls were blank, and that the hummingbird feeder was hanging from a different tree, now. We ate ice cream out of the container, jawed about who was better with Chun-Li or E. Honda.
Long after the sun had gone down, she picked up the last photo. It was the one from the pier, the day before Tina was killed. Our mouths were so stuffed with sushi we could hardly smile for the camera.
Neither of us could think of anything to say about the photo.
Penny looked at me. “After Tina died, I went to bed every night wishing I’d wake up someplace different. Somewhere Tina was still alive. Where everything was still sushi and sunsets and Street Fighter.”
Penny slid closer, rested her head against my chest. She struggled to keep her eyelids open. “Do you think we’ll still be here when we wake up?”
Her breath was warm against my skin. It felt like home.
“I don’t know. But I hope so. Because I’m still wearing your underwear.”
She smiled, and in her eyes I could tell that our rude awakenings had finally come to an end.
Derrick Boden’s fiction has appeared in numerous online and print venues including The Colored Lens, Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, and Perihelion.