...and then he found himself alone on an empty desert plain. His eyes snapped shut against the blinding noon-day brilliance. The oven heat stung his cool skin.
“...before I start it.”
He jerked backwards. Who said that? He spun, straining his eyes against the light. He realized those words had come from his own mouth. Automatically, as if he were finishing a thought.
He shut his eyes again and dropped his hands to his sides. His mind raced, though it didn’t appear to have anything coherent to hold on to. Images came without context: a red marble castle, a flying bicycle, a twenty-foot kangaroo with stalactite fangs, a Mongolian horde charging across Seattle, the skyline on fire in the background.
What is a Mongolian? What is a Seattle?
Who am I?
He struggled to remember anything, but casting his mind into the past only brought on a deluge of disconnected thoughts. He took a deep breath to clear his mind. The utter silence of the desert helped. He opened himself to its stillness, calming the noise in his mind (coffee with hazelnut, helicopter squirrels, the golden statue of Maude the Impaler) until he felt his heartbeat.
He found he could open his eyes ten percent without threat of blindness. He turned to scan the panorama through a lattice of eyelashes. The fierce blue of the sky fused with hazy, pale earth in all directions. With the sun at its zenith, even the cracks in the dry, hard earth were barely discernable.
He was nowhere.
He held something in his right hand. He drew it to his face and allowed his eyelids to open a sliver more. There in his palm lay a rectangular device. Cellphone. He pondered it for a moment. The phone was familiar. His finger probed the side and found a button. It beeped. The screen lit up, dim against the blazing sun. “One Message”. He tapped the notification. The entire message read:
He stared at it. Hey. He pondered the message for a minute, then searched for additional messages. There were none.
“Okay,” he said, dropping his hand to his side. “Okay.”
Five minutes passed. Perhaps more. “Okay.”
He examined the phone again. It had a Sudoku app, an empty call log, no signal, and a battery that was nearly empty. He turned the phone off and shoved it in a pocket. In his other front pocket, he found a key ring. One key said Yale. Another Buick. The keyfob was a plastic square with a worn ad, Jerry’s Main Street Auto Sales, along with a phone number. He considered calling it. Would Jerry know what to do?
Continuing his inventory, he found a wallet in a back pocket. It contained five dollars, a Visa bank card, and a driver’s licence for an Edwin Foster, issued by the state of South Dakota. The picture showed a thin teenager with haunted eyes and sandy hair that stood up in all directions.
He ran a hand over his tangled hair. He pulled a dirty blond strand forward to examine. “That’s me?”
Edwin? Ed? Eddie? He was definitely an Eddie, not an Edwin.
He spoke to the driver’s licence portrait. “Okay, Eddie. It’s time to do something.”
He did very little for the next twenty minutes, never straying from his spot but occasionally talking to his driver’s license. “Let’s go, Eddie. What are we going to do now? You disappoint me, Eddie. You find yourself in the desert and all you do is stand there. Snails are faster than you. Dehydrated snails. Leaving you in the dust.”
He took stock of his clothing. Blue jeans, a white t-shirt, and a black leather vest. Why was he wearing the vest? Was he a leather vest kind of guy? In a vest pocket, he found a coupon for half off any sandwich at Sal’s Sub Shop with a purchase of equal value.
He checked his shadow. The dark outline spilled onto the earth a few inches in front of him. It had been straight down before. It was less than an hour after noon.
“Walk away from the sun, Eddie. Follow your shadow. You won’t have the sun in your eyes, and you won’t wander in circles.” He wasn’t sure that was right, but it was good to have a plan. He shook the paralysis from his legs, took a first step, felt the soft crumble of dry baked earth turn to dust beneath his foot, and began his trek in this unfamiliar wasteland.
He walked. His shadow grew, the sun stung the back of his neck. For a while, he held the leather vest over his head to block the sun. His arms soon grew tired. His tongue became sticky. He plodded on. Hours passed.
He didn’t pause until the sun kissed the horizon behind him. The sky turned pink, then orange, then gold, and then violet. He had to stop and gaze up at that violet. That particular hue stirred something deep in him. Beautiful purple, like…
But when he tried to remember, his mind once again crashed open wide with a torrent of unmoored memories. Tangled chokeweed covering the planet until all other life ceased. A lead box full of plutonium arrowheads. Nano-men with their laser beam eyes.
His eyes slammed shut again. “Shut up. Shut up. SHUT UP!” He grit his teeth and willed away the chaos. The one virtue of this empty land was its utter silence. He allowed that silence to consume him. His mind calmed, he walked on. Whatever that purple hue signified, the memory was out of reach..
Stars unrolled across the sky. He recited the Star Light Star Bright litany and tried hard not to attach the poem to any specific memory. He didn’t wish for anything.
He would have to stop walking if he couldn’t orient himself in the dark. He’d only end up walking in circles. But while the horizon still retained a dusky purple, he recognized the Big Dipper. And there was Cassiopeia, standing above the horizon like a sideways W.
So this wasn’t an alien world. This was familiar. He traced an imaginary line across the sky, beginning at the front of the big dipper and ending at Polaris. That was north. If he kept the North Star at his left shoulder, he’d maintain his eastward course towards… wherever.
The sky lost some of its familiarity an hour later. At first, he thought he spotted a light on the horizon. Was it a vehicle? A street light perhaps? The light climbed the sky, a circle too small to be the moon but much too big to be a distant star, pale white and blue. Over the next hour, three additional lights, smaller and fainter, climbed beneath it. A new constellation of unfamiliar bodies in the heavens, forming a kite shape. One of them gray, the others blueish.
The real shock came an hour later when the moon rose. It was slightly past full, pale orange-pink as it climbed the edge of the sky, but with a splash of red. Was it really the moon at all? As it climbed, the red characters across its surface became unmistakable.
DRINK SKY COLA
“A billboard,” he muttered. “Someone has turned the moon into a freakin billboard.”