Send For The Lost (Short story excerpt)
I awoke in a place that at first seemed familiar, as new places often do, but within seconds revealed itself as somewhere I was sure I had never been. Every sense in my body told me you do not know where you are. Disorientation kicked in before I had the chance to realise I was also thirsty, and my stomach had reached the point beyond hunger at which it seems to have given up needing food entirely. Turning my groggy head left, and then right, my consciousness slow to register what my eyes were taking in, I saw desert dust, flat for several miles with gradual rocky hills and dunes in the distance, and ahead of me, a reddish dirt road. Judging only by the light and lengthening shadows, it must have been around three or four o’clock in the afternoon. Breathing in, first through my nose in some kind of cautious in-built defence mechanism, then through my mouth, humid, foreign air filled my throat and lungs.
The next thing that struck me was oddly reassuring; a childlike feeling of not knowing the exact day or date, reminiscent of summer holidays now nearly three decades behind me. I knew my name, where I had been; and I knew that this was not England. I searched for the last clear memory, finding it to be a long walk around a glistening lake in August sunshine with Eva; but it didn’t feel like yesterday, or even the day before that, like it did in movies. Somehow I understood she and the others shouldn’t be here with me, but had no idea why, or where they would be. Reassurance met a foggy panic and somehow one balanced the other out. And I heard — nothing. Near-silence, punctuated by the sound of my own breathing, which startled me into some kind of action.
In a motion that had become second nature, habit, I reached for my phone, and found my pockets empty, and no sign of the rucksack that rarely left my back. The faded black jeans, light blue cotton shirt and old reliable trainers were my own, but felt oddly fitted, as if they had been dry cleaned, ironed, and I had been dressed like a shop floor dummy. It was hot enough that I should have been sweating, but I felt only a light glow on my forehead. My scratchy throat reminded me of the need for water, so I got to my feet, only a minor struggle, and looked around again — civilisation was never far away these days, there’s always someone ready to extort the desperately thirsty for bottled water. This thought triggered another — money. A second search of my pockets found no trace of notes, cards, coins or anything else that might pass for currency, wherever this was. The balance started to tip in favour of panic.
Ahead of me, the dirt road stretched out for what looked like miles, and behind me, nothing but desert for as far as I could see. I was at the beginning (or the end) of a long, straight road. I later applauded myself for not starting to spiral at this point, or giving myself a chance to consider my sudden change in setting or its potential explanation. Instead, something propelled me forward, either a logic-driven subconscious survival instinct, or perhaps the absolute mass of silence in the other direction, so one step at a time I started walking, with only a cursory glance back to the place I had woken to make sure all I had left behind was the six-foot-two indent in the sand.
Within about thirty minutes, the road widened slightly, and the small rocks and grit leaving their red-brown colour on the clean white soles of my shoes started turning into something more structured, organised. For a minute or two the sides of the road became clearly defined lines, which I kept walking between, until before long I was stepping out onto hard, dull grey tarmac, the first steps jarring my body, which had become used to the softer give of the dirt road. Adjusting, I picked up the pace slightly, cautiously, and something new caught my attention — the bright light was bouncing off a flat object to the right of the road about fifty metres ahead of me. My sun-beaten mind half-saw a mirage, not exactly an oasis but maybe some roadside trader selling water to passers-by. Instead, as I came closer, I made out the edges of a rectangular shape on two large stilts, and what came into focus gave me at least an ounce or two of hope:
ROCK SPRINGS, WY.
Please Drive Carefully
I had never been to Wyoming, and as far as I could recall, had no reason to be there. But the letters ‘WY’ rattled around with enough distant familiarity that I wasn’t exactly surprised, just — curious. The innate ability humans have to accept and quickly adapt to new and unexpected situations replaced the necessity for further questions. Instead, the great silence behind just pushed me forward, and I pressed on, noticing that a light breeze had started to pick up, and that it was carrying something with it. The sound was distant, but it was there. Something with a slow, repetitive rhythm — music?
Squinting and shielding my eyes, the sun lowering in the sky, I was able to make out huge shadowed objects starting to line the roads up ahead. Passing more closely, these revealed themselves to be houses; five or six impressive structures, some in a colonial style with those columns and porches, one, to my left at the end of the row, almost regal. All appeared empty. Instead of cars parked out on the driveways, just dead grass and dying plants, but no broken windows or battered doors; this was not an apocalypse scene, but something quieter, sadder. The rhythmic sound had paused, almost respectfully, but within seconds made itself known again on the light wind; definitely music, some kind of piano with a soft jazz beat underneath it, and a woman’s voice, echoing off of nearby buildings.
Another ten or fifteen minutes of walking — time seems irrelevant when you find yourself thousands of miles from where you expect to be — and sparse residential roads gradually turned into the network of streets that make up any small town, eerily quiet except for that music, which aside from a few momentary breaks had continued to accompany my route into Rock Springs, Wyoming. Just a little too distant to make out any of the words she was singing, but close enough to fit the rough description of jazz, it seemed to make sense to follow the sound and try to find its source. On any other day, arriving in a new town, I’d have looked for the hub of activity, the centre, but even as I walked deeper into the place between buildings which housed closed shops — it was unclear whether their doors were shuttered for the day, or for good — the apparent lack of people made this hard to establish. So, the music it was.
I had always been proud of my semi-present sense of direction. Not exactly an internal compass, but generally reliable enough to kick in at oddly useful moments, even though I’d usually struggle to place myself on a map without the convenient “you are here” pointer.
More empty streets, diminishing light; that time in the early evening when street-lamps usually click on, but here only a handful seemed to be turning up for the night shift. I took a left on Moore Road and paused between songs on my strange new soundtrack, waiting for the music to re-start and give me an arrow to follow. Four, maybe five seconds, and the backing band stuttered back in with a gentle snare, soft hi-hat beat, a walking bass line, waiting for their singer’s echoey vocal to begin. It was close enough that I could imagine her at the front of a small backlit stage in some smokey dive, long red dress — just beautiful and seductive enough to capture the audience’s attention on this particular evening, but not quite enough for things to have gone the way she’d dreamed — sipping at a glass of something before taking a breath and preparing to sing again.
Consciously snapping my mind back to the present before it had the chance to wander and remind my body of its dehydrated state, or drift away entirely, my compass somehow told me I was getting where I needed to be. Though it showed no obvious signs of life, Moore Road was long and full of buildings, each just tall enough to house a handful of apartments or offices, with small signs and buzzers next to the front doors, and about halfway down it split into two streets, with a central island of smaller buildings, introduced by a corner building that looked like an old cinema, the sign over the faux-grand arches reading: RED DESERT PICTURE HOUSE. Not an entirely original name given the landscape surrounding the town; the kind of single screen place that shows the biggest film of the moment for a week or so, and hasn’t yet figured out the need to relieve its patrons of their hard-earned dollars for popcorn and soft drinks. The faded posters either side of the main doors advertised some film I’d never heard of — “The Wanderers” — written in faded retro type.
I picked the right-hand lane, which narrowed and veered to the right again, with a new sign welcoming me onto Main St. Taking the cue, the music became a little louder and clearer around this corner, but still no obvious signs of life. Main St may have been a lively place a few decades ago, but by the time I got there it was all boarded-up shops, years out of date circus posters behind windows and the occasional darkened bar — I’d missed the party. Red Dress led me on, with enough clarity that I could start to make out a few of the lyrics, and even a melody or two that I recognised with distant familiarity: lost love, lonely, baby, the usual heartening fare of timeless jazz ballads.
Somewhere along Main St, I paused to re-assess and found the music at it’s peak. One of those hotels with no need to display its name externally (a large sign simply declared ‘Hotel’ — presumably the only place in town) seemed to be the source of the songs floating through Rock Springs and punctuating its otherwise near-silent streets. Cautiously making my way towards the modest double doors, I took in their not-quite run down, not-quite up kept appearance; layers of white, peeling paint and clean windows with a clear view into the lounge and reception inside. The hinge of one large window was propped open, a little above head height, allowing the sound to escape. Not much signage, except neon lettering which had given up its usual role of indicating Vacancy vs No Vacancy. Turning my attention again to the front door, I took my chances, and reached out for the round brass doorknob, fully expecting it to be locked and bolted the way everything else in this place seemed to be. With a slight squeak, it turned easily to the right and the door swung inward with barely a push. I paused again, looked around to the left, right, and behind me, and stepped in.
Blinking to adjust to the indoor light, I found an empty reception desk that gave the impression the person responsible for standing behind it awaiting customers had just stepped away for a moment. Think Mary Celeste meets Holiday Inn. Somebody once told me that the nicer a hotel’s reception, the higher the chances of a disappointing bedroom and mediocre service, a theory which had since proven to be mostly true. If that was the case here, I felt fairly well-equipped to predict the quality of the rooms upstairs, based on the slightly tired but decently-intentioned space I’d found myself in, updated ten or fifteen years prior, almost grand for a small town. The customary white plastic sign invited me to Ring Bell For Attention, and I politely accepted. Once, then thirty seconds or so, and again — nothing. The sound of a clear, sharp bell rang through the small room, and drew my attention back to the soft jazz it was so perfectly out of tune with, now seeming oddly quiet inside given the fact that it had led me here. To my right was a light blue wall with a vague painting of flowers in muted colours, suitably inoffensive for its hotel reception positioning, as if designed for that job, and that job alone. To my left, the reception led through an open double doorway to the bar and restaurant, under a brass sign with embedded letters declaring its name:
Still on an as-yet unfruitful quest for water and some kind of provisions, not to mention answers, I proceeded through the doorway and looked around, my eyes adjusting to the subdued light and my nostrils kicking in to detect the smell of cigarette smoke tangled with sweat, circulated by a slowly rotating ceiling fan a couple of feet above my head, and realised what looked like a large aeronautical propeller was the first movement beyond my own footsteps I’d seen since I’d opened my eyes a couple of hours earlier. Nobody behind the bar, either -
Suddenly the music was driving me mad. I glanced around and saw an old-style vinyl jukebox sitting by the wall, wired up to slightly shabby looking wooden bookshelf speakers in two opposite corners of the room. I walked over and pulled the plug out of the wall, watching the lights flicker and the robotic tonearm drop slightly as the turntable stopped spinning, before taking a moment to enjoy the silence.
There were six or seven low, round wooden tables, some set for the day and untouched, but a couple towards the centre of the room with empty plates and glasses, and one ashtray with the cigarette ends piled up. I wandered over to the bar across the back of the room, and ducked under the gap at one end, listening out for signs of life in case somebody found me where I wasn’t supposed to be and I’d have to explain myself, without knowing where to start. First though — the tap above the wide, dull metal sink. I grabbed a large glass from the stacks of clean ones behind me, tried the tap and let the water run for a few seconds, then filled it up, raising it to my dry lips and gulping the cool water — even with a slight metallic tinge, it was the most satisfying I’d ever tasted. I leaned back and realised I’d probably been minutes from letting my mind drift into whiteness and my legs buckle.
I filled up the glass again, noticing the sense of abundance that comes with having the basics after the briefest period of deprivation — water, shelter, food. Food. I scanned the surface of the bar area behind me and saw a wooden bowl, full of small shiny packets of seasoned peanuts with a handwritten price tag taped to the front — 99¢. I made a mental I.O.U. and took a couple of packs, somehow feeling that one of each flavour would help ensure a more balanced nutritional intake. Pocketing Barbecue for later, I ripped open Chilli and poured a handful into my palm, throwing them into my mouth and feeling the heat overwhelm my taste buds, stinging my tongue as I chewed and pushing tears out of my eyes. I repeated the process until I’d finished the pack and wiped my hands to avoid inadvertently rubbing ground chilli and salt into my eyes, and looked around, considering my next move carefully.
Stepping back out from behind the bar with the glass of water still in my hand as if I were the most casual of hotel guests, I moved quietly back towards reception and, getting into the swing of helping myself, walked round behind the desk. An un-doored doorframe stood directly behind it, opening into a very small room with a couple of office chairs, shelves full of box files, and attached to the wall around chest height, an open key cabinet with around twenty numbered hooks, each hanging one or two keys. Something about Room 12 jumped out to me, the key almost offering itself to my outstretched hand, so I took it off and found myself expecting to offer someone help with their luggage, giving directions to the room — “walk along the corridor and take the elevator up, it’ll be through the doors on your left” — and the Wi-Fi code, of course.
To the left side of the reception desk, double doors led to one of those corridors with numbered rooms along each side — 1, 3, 5 on my right — were there other people here, sleeping? It was incredibly quiet, no murmurs of conversation from behind closed doors, blaring televisions, running showers or the usual mix of hotel sound effects. A right turn, then more doors, and before long I found Room 12 on my left. My curiosity about the end of the corridor a few metres ahead, leading to what looked like a staircase up to another floor, was outweighed by the need to lie down as soon as possible, rest, perhaps sleep — I’d been walking for hours. I knocked gently, and getting no response, tried the key, realising there was still at least a slim chance I could be about to walk in on someone.
Cautiously pushing open the door, I found an empty room, with its pale blue walls, floral patterned curtains, and freshly made white cotton bedding on a double bed oddly welcoming. I closed the door, feeling it lock and pulling the chain across for extra security. I turned on the lights, and checked the bathroom — clean, enough of those little bottles lined up and full of cheap scented shampoo to reassure me that I was unlikely to expect a surprised visitor in the night — before approaching the window to pull the curtains closed. A quick look outside to the fading daylight revealed a view you wouldn’t pay extra for, a flat tarmac car park backing on to other buildings, and several dusty 4x4 flatbed trucks in varying shades of blue, black and silver parked across the twenty or so spaces; only one had the metallic all-American gleam of a newer vehicle.
It was unnervingly quiet at the Rock Springs Hotel. None of the bird song, distant whooshing road noise or occasional chatter I was used to — just, nothing. It occurred to me briefly that this was the kind of place that would have been on several flight paths, and I hadn’t seen or heard a plane overhead all afternoon. Shuffling that thought to the back of my mind with some of the other questions that had started to make themselves known, I shut the curtains, checked around the room again, and under the bed, for some reason, without being sure what I was expecting to find. The room was basic, and empty. Exhausted, I pressed the switch to turn off the ceiling light and kept the bedside lamp on, with its dull orange glow; took off my shoes and lay down on the bed, stretching out my back, and felt myself falling asleep within a few seconds.
(Excerpt from ‘Send For The Lost’ short story)
Copyright © Luke Roberts, 2019