Friday, May 5th, 2000. 8:15 AM, Eastern Time.
Samantha opens her eyes.
She blinks spastically, disoriented by the light. Incoherent shapes and unfamiliar colors cloud her vision. Noise fills her ears, her skin prickles, and her breath comes in awkward gasps. After a few moments of abject confusion, she recognizes the color dominating her vision: white. A few moments more, and she grasps the purpose of that white shape: ceiling. Her head jerks about to take in her surroundings: she is in a room, laying upon a bed. So far, so good. She takes a moment to breathe and collect herself.
Samantha sits up, rubs her eyes, rolls her head around on her neck and then stretches her arms upwards, interlocking her fingers and popping her knuckles, elbows, shoulders. She lowers her arms and breathes deep, smelling dust and something herbal-oily and a little bit of sweat. The noise in her ears gradually resolves into birdsong and the occasional breeze rustling through the trees outside. Her right knee feels funny, a little loose, like it needs to be adjusted. She flexes her leg back and forth, back and forth, hears a muted pop and feels a brief pang followed by relief. The walls around her are covered in brightly colored patterns, but near the ceiling is a procession of strange shapes in black and white, wrapping around the whole room. Samantha looks at them carefully: they are at once intensely familiar, yet utterly alien. Names for the shapes slowly well up from she knows not where: Aa Bb Cc Dd...
Painfully slow, Samantha recites the alphabet in her head with the aid of the childish frieze. Sounds for the letters tug at her mind, though they are many and varied. She is dimly aware that the words “white”, “ceiling”, “window”, and “birdsong” now have spellings and are no longer floating abstractions in her stream of consciousness. As she repeats the alphabet in her mind, she hums a simple tune, and the tune makes her think of the night sky, twinkling and jeweled. She looks around at the objects in the room, not quite sure what to make of them. One shape stands out to her: a rectangle, with smaller rectangles running lengthwise across it, and little circles at each end. Samantha has no word for it, but it's got clothes in it, and she is suddenly aware that she is wearing a white tank top. She pulls back the blanket from across her knees and sees that she is wearing pajama pants with a splotchy pattern of greens, browns, and near-blacks. Blaze orange letters run across the amorphous shapes, and Samantha slowly sounds out the words: “YOU CAN'T SEE ME.” She reads the words again, uncomprehending – she most certainly can see them!
Samantha slowly rises from bed, standing as if for the first time. She finds her legs, leans on the furniture to take a few steps, and realizes that she does in fact know how to walk. She makes for the door, reaches for the doorknob on instinct, smooth and cool. She turns it first one way and then the other. Clacking, rattling, not opening, she jiggles the knob back and forth, then finally speaks:
Scrutinizing the doorknob, she sees an oblong protuberance and fiddles with it. She can't flip it up or down, she can't push it in or pull it out, but she eventually manages to rotate it ninety degrees counter-clockwise with a satisfying click. She looks around suspiciously, as though expecting someone to evaluate her performance, then turns the knob once more. At last, the door opens, and Samantha smiles. Victory!
Walking barefoot through a hallway, Samantha sees several framed photographs of a young child and a woman, each with long black hair. They look – Yes, that’s me, she thinks. But little. She looks at her own hands, then back at the pictures on the wall. And that’s Mom. But that kid’s, like, knee high. And I’m – she looks down at the floor, then up as she reaches to touch the ceiling – like most of a wall. A bunch of thoughts pull like threads on her mind, and she spaces out for a bit, then shakes her head and walks on, absently dragging her fingertips along the rough texture of the paint. The hallway opens onto a living room, and Samantha dimly recognizes various items of furniture, as though she has not seen them for a very long time. More pictures with more people on a table, in various degrees of colorfulness. She passes through a dining room and comes to a kitchen, looks around, and sees a note on the counter. The words are hand-written, and it takes Samantha some time to decipher the flowing script:
Went to Bill’s for pancake stuff, be back soon. Have some fruit! Make sure to rinse it off first.
Samantha recognizes her own name, but she doesn’t know who Bill is, or what pancakes are, but there’s fruit in a bowl on the table and Samantha decides to eat some. She grabs a pale green pear, smooth and firm, and wonders what “rinse” means as she raises the fruit to her mouth. Looking around, she spots the sink, and suddenly realizes that she can use it to get water and that’s what rinsing is all about. After running the tap for a few moments, Samantha rinses off her pear and wipes it dry with a rough towel hanging from the refrigerator door before taking a big, juicy bite. She looks around the kitchen as she eats.
Let’s see, she thinks, There’s a fruit bowl. Those are green pears, red apples, yellow… banna… banna-nanna… bananas! And a counter, and there’s a knife block, those are sharp. She draws a knife from the wooden block, the top right one, carefully thumbs the blade as she examines it, slides it back home. Sink, fridge, towel – she taps her right index finger in each one’s direction as she counts them off – cupboards, drawers, and a pantry with a cal-ee-en-dee-ay-ar! on the door… that’s an oven, with a stove and a hood, pots and pans hanging above from a rack, and a ceiling fan up at the top. And that’s a dishwasher, and garbage can in the corner. The words feel almost magical as she recites them in her head, conjuring up images of use and function in her mind.
Samantha returns to the note as she finishes her pear. She should probably see if she can find this Bill, and Mom, and then maybe there will be those pancakes and she’ll find out what’s going on. She places the pear core in the garbage and folds the note before putting it in her pocket. One of the kitchen doors leads to the outside, and Samantha tries the knob: unlocked. She opens the door and nearly steps through a screen, then opens that after a pause to find the little lever, and she’s out in the bright morning sunshine. The light is warm, but the concrete stoop is cold beneath her feet, and a stiff breeze is blowing. Samantha thinks of the dresser in the room where she woke up, and decides to see if she can find something warmer to wear.
Retracing her steps, Samantha finds her way back. Before opening the dresser, she spots an open gray duffel bag on the floor next to it. She rifles through its contents, finds two complete changes of clothes and picks what to wear from that: olive cargo pants, a grey t-shirt, and plain white ankle socks and undergarments. The shirt has writing on it, and Samantha pauses while dressing to examine it: WWMFIRSD?, in big crackly-looking black letters. Beneath that: (What Would My Fully Informed Rational Self Do?) And on the back: UCLA Philosophy Club – Finding the “ought” in “thought.” The words seem like they ought to mean something more to her, like it’s right at the, um – but nothing comes. Samantha knits her brow, makes a non-committal grunt, and continues dressing. A light jacket is draped over the back of a chair seated in front of a small vanity, colored in the same splotchy pattern as her pajama pants. She slips the jacket on, and notices that it was concealing a simple black shoulder bag on the seat; my bag, in fact. She grabs it and slings it over her shoulder before heading back to the kitchen. She spots two sets of footwear by the kitchen door: big brown flip-flops with a frayed cotton thong, and black athletic shoes. She opts for the running shoes, manages to tie them successfully after a few errors, and heads back out into the morning sun.
She walks down the driveway and examines the house for distinguishing characteristics before heading off to find Bill & Mom. The house is yellow, with two cars in front: a dark blue sedan and an olive green Jeep – my Jeep, in fact. Easy enough, right? She looks around to decide which direction to go, and sees a sign for Bill’s Corner Market several doors down the street. Even easier! She walks down the street and into the shop through the swinging glass door with the “PUSH” on its handle. A small bell rings right above her head, startling her. A slight man with gray hair and a blue collared shirt stands behind a counter. On seeing her enter, he says something friendly-sounding and smiles.
“Oh, um, hi!” Samantha stares a moment at the first live person she has seen all morning. “You must be Bill, right?” The man strokes his chin in thought for a moment.
“Why, yes,” he says at last. “I do believe I am, now that you mention it.” Samantha looks around the shop, sees the top of a head poking up over a shelf of goods, and heads over to the aisle. Standing there is the woman from the framed photos in the hallway, but older, staring blankly down the aisle at the corridor of brightly-colored packages.
“Mom?” The woman jumps and turns to face the source of the noise, then recognizes her daughter.
“Oh, Sammy! How good to see you!” She swiftly gathers Samantha into a hug, squeezes tight and then backs out to look slightly up at her daughter’s face. “My, how you’ve grown. How are you, sweetie?”
“I’m OK, I guess. So what’s going on?” Samantha’s mother pulls back from the hug, bright-eyed and smiling, but does not answer the question. Slowly, her expression turns blank, then concerned.
“I – I don’t know. I was standing here,” and she looks at the floor beneath her feet, “And then – I don’t know! I think I was here for something – “ and she trails off.
“Pancakes,” Samantha suggests.
“Ah, yes,” Samantha watches her mother’s face brighten once more. “That was it.” Together, the two of them search the aisle until they find a box of pancake mix, then Samantha teaches her mother the alphabet by the song and Mom picks it up quick enough, and they carefully decipher the directions to determine what other ingredients they need. After gathering milk, eggs, sugar, and a bottle of vanilla extract, the women wish Bill a good day and head back home. The idea of “payment” doesn’t cross anyone’s mind.
Samantha and her mother search the kitchen for all the things they’ll need to make pancakes, and set about meticulously measuring ingredients and following the instructions. While the griddle is warming up on the match-lit stove, Samantha is reading the instructions over with her mother when the floor creaks from the hallway – they turn to face the noise.
“Ah,” a young man says, taking a step back and putting his hands in the air, palms open. He mumbles incoherently for a few moments while Samantha sizes him up. He is of stockier build than she, and half a head shorter. Wearing only a pair of mesh shorts, Samantha can see that he is unarmed, and clearly confused. “Um. Hi.”
“Who are you? What are you doing here,” Samantha asks. Her mother is startled to inaction.
“I, uh, I don’t know,” the man says haltingly. “I just woke up, heard noise, came to see. That’s all.” His speech grows smoother as he talks. He slowly lowers his hands to his sides, keeping his palms open. Samantha can’t say why, but he looks trustworthy. She shrugs and decides to have him help out.
“OK, you can help us make pancakes, then. Take this bowl and use the ladle to pour the mix onto the griddle.” She points at each object as she mentions them, and the man complies. Slowly, the tension eases. “So,” Samantha continues as they cook, “I’m Sam. Sammm, umm, Rose.”
“Seamus,” the man says automatically, adding “Kast” after a pause. He stares off for a moment, evidently confused.
“Is this one of your friends, Sammy,” asks her mother. Samantha considers the question for a moment. Seamus looks sleepy, all right, as if he just woke up; he must have woken in the house; the sandals at the kitchen door look to be about his size; and he doesn’t seem to know any more about what’s going on than Samantha or her mother. He’s probably a friend? Seems likely.
“Sure,” she says at last, “I guess so.” The edges of the pancakes begin to turn golden, just like the recipe said, and Samantha busies herself flipping them with the spatula. “Seamus, this is my mother.”
“Tina,” she says, extending her hand to Seamus.
“Hi. Nice to meet you, Tina.” They smile at each other and shake hands.
“So, Seamus,” Tina asks, returning to the task at hand, “Where are you from? What do you do?”
“I’m, uh – I’m not sure.” He scratches his head, struggling to find the answers to her questions, but he only draws blanks. “I can’t think of much of anything, only what’s just happened since I woke up here.”
“Strange,” says Samantha, “I’m in the same boat. I woke up in my room, and that’s all I know.”
“I was at Bill’s,” Tina says, staring out the window, “I guess I was getting pancakes, but I was just standing there until Sammy showed up.”
“Oh!” Samantha perks up and snaps her fingers. “You left a note! Let me go get it!” She darts out of the room and retrieves the note from her pajama pants, returning with it seconds later and handing it to Tina. “Here. This was on the counter before I came to get you.” Tina studies the note thoughtfully.
“Yes, I went to Bill’s for pancakes,” she says at last, handing the note back with an air of satisfaction. “Did you eat your fruit?”
“Yeah, I had a pear. Rinsed it and everything.” Samantha wrinkles her nose at an unpleasant odor. “Pancakes!” She hurriedly flips the pancakes onto a ready plate. Only two are burned, but all are at least slightly overcooked. “Here, Mom, you do the next set. I have an idea.”
Samantha shows the note to Seamus and asks if he can read it – no, he shakes his head. She takes him by the hand and leads him to her room, walking to the wall just below the Aa near the ceiling. She stretches her arm up and taps at it. “OK, start here, and look at these.” Seamus stares dumbly for a few moments, but recognition slowly crawls across his face.
“That’s – “ he stammers, “That’s the alphabet.”
“Yes! Yes, it is! I thought so, too, when I woke up. OK, now see if you can say all their names.”
“This is stupid,” Seamus says, embarrassed. “Everybody knows the alphabet.”
“Pfft, you didn’t until just now.”
“Sure did. What, you think you just know the alphabet by looking at it? I had to already know.” Just the same, he recites the letters in his head as he re-familiarizes himself with their shapes.
“Fine, let’s go see if you can read that note now.”
Back in the kitchen, sure enough, Seamus is able to pull letters from the markings on the note.
“All right,” he says, handing the note to Samantha, “I can read it now.” He thinks about what he’s just said, tries to focus on its meaning. He frowns, stares off for a moment.
“So,” Samantha says, hands spread in front of her as if to perform a magic trick, “We know stuff – “
“ – But we don’t know what we know,” Seamus finishes.
“Right!” Samantha claps her hands together, then steeples her fingers beneath her chin and breathes deeply. “So. We can figure it out, it seems, if we just come at it right.”
“Great. Then how do we know how to come at it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well,” Seamus says, “Where’s that leave us, then?”
“Pancakes are done!” Tina flips the last of the pancakes onto the plate and brings them to the counter where Samantha and Seamus are talking. They each take a pancake in hand and bite, chewing while they think over their predicament. “Oh, you kids. Here, use some plates.” Tina piles the pancakes onto a pair of plates and places them before Samantha and Seamus, then shuffles through the drawers until she finds the silverware and gives them each a fork before readying her own plate. “Something’s missing,” she muses, then consults the box. The picture on the front shows a bottle of syrup pouring over a fluffy stack of flapjacks. “Ah-ha! Syrup!” She retrieves her own syrup from the pantry and drizzles some over each plate.
“Thanks, Mom,” Samantha says, preparing to dig in with her fork.
“Yeah, thanks,” Seamus echoes after swallowing the bit of dry pancake he had been working on.
“Oh, you’re both welcome. Don’t forget to have some fruit,” Tina says, taking a banana for herself. Seamus grabs an apple. Samantha drops her fork.
“Forget,” she says blankly. “We forgot everything. Can’t remember.” Seamus mulls this over for a moment, nods, and swallows again.
“Yeah,” he says, “That’s gotta be it. I can’t remember anything before waking up. Couldn’t even remember the word ‘remember’, it’s so bad. But now you mention it, it fits in.”
“My goodness,” Tina chimes in, “You’re right! I can’t remember a thing before you showed up at Bill’s. Not one darn thing.”
“We need a to-do list,” Samantha says. She looks around for a pen, grabs one from a ceramic mug full of them on the countertop, and starts writing on the back of the note:
1. Find out what’s going on.
“We need to find out what’s going on,” she continues. “See if anybody remembers anything. This might just be us, or it might be everybody, or anything in between.”
“Well,” Seamus says, “If everyone’s forgotten everything, then we’re going to need to secure ourselves a food supply.”
“Oh, that’s no problem,” Tina says. “Bill’s got plenty, I was just there.”
“Yeah, but for how long?”
“Seamus is right,” Samantha adds. “Bill only has so much, and there’s got to be other people around in all these houses, and if nobody knows where the food comes from or where to take it, then that’s going to turn into a problem in pretty short order.”
“Ooh, I didn’t think of that,” Tina says.
“We’ll also need water,” Samantha continues. “We don’t know where the water comes from, or how long it will last. And we’ll probably need some help from other people to get all this going.” She writes on the piece of paper some more:
2. Figure out food.
3. Find water.
4. Get help.
“OK,” Seamus interjects, reading what Samantha has written, “I think that’s enough for now. If we manage to solve all of these, then I think we’ll be in pretty good shape for the time being.”
“I feel like we’re forgetting something,” Samantha says.
“Probably,” Seamus agrees. “But we’ll jump off that bridge when we get to it. This will do for now, and if something else comes up, we’ll deal with it then.”
“But what if it’s something we could have thought of now,” Samantha asks.
“Can you think of anything else?”
“Well, not when you put me on the spot.”
“Then let’s get to work,” Seamus concludes. Tina remains silent.
“OK,” Samantha concedes after a moment, “We’ll get to work.”
“Well,” Tina says at last, “I’ll clean up the kitchen while you two go figure it all out.” She shoos them from their seats at the counter and busies herself with the dishes.
“Thanks, Mom,” Samantha says. “We’ll be back soon to check in. Seamus, you might want to put on some more clothes, it’s a little chilly outside.” Suddenly self-conscious, Seamus walks gingerly out of the kitchen. He returns moments later in frayed jean shorts and a white t-shirt. Samantha is seated at the counter again, jacket on, gazing studiously at her list. “Ready,” she asks, folding the note and putting it in her purse.
“Yep,” Seamus says. He puts on his sandals, and they head out the kitchen door.
Outside, the air has warmed considerably, and the Sun is higher in the sky. “I thought you said it was cold,” Seamus says.
“Well, it was colder before,” Samantha says, turning down the sidewalk toward Bill’s Corner Market. “I figure we’ll head over to Bill’s, see what we can get out of him, and take it from there. Sound good?”
“Sure,” Seamus agrees. After a beat, he adds, “Hey, maybe we ought to see if anyone’s home in these houses.”
“Ooh, good idea.” They walk up to the next house over and Samantha knocks on the door. She waits a few beats and knocks again. Seamus peers in through the front windows, sees an empty couch and the side of a television set, but no signs of activity. Samantha knocks a third time, then starts walking counterclockwise around the house. Seamus follows. At the rear corner, they find a bedroom and see someone sleeping inside. Samantha raps on the window a few times, and the lump beneath the covers stirs. A head of short brown hair pokes up, sees the two of them staring in through the window, and screams. Samantha and Seamus wave their hands frantically, trying in vain to calm the frightened man, but he springs out of bed, gets tangled in the covers, and knocks over his nightstand, sending a ceramic lamp tumbling to the floor where it shatters. The man continues shouting as he flails about, cutting himself on the shards strewn about the floor. Finally, he gets to his feet and half runs, half tumbles, straight into the bedroom door head first. Samantha and Seamus wince in unison as he falls heavily to the floor again, then curls up in the corner to hide himself from the unknown beings at the window.
“I think we’ve done enough damage here,” Seamus says after the man is no longer visibly shaking.
“Yeah, let’s clear out.” They head back to the sidewalk and continue on to Bill’s.
“Hey, welcome back,” Bill says as the pair enters. Seamus studies the bell above the door for a moment as it rings.
“Hello again, Bill,” Samantha says cheerfully.
“How were the pancakes?”
“Oh, they were great, thanks for asking. Say, Bill, do you remember what happened yesterday?” Bill considers the question for a moment, roughly stroking his jaw as he does so.
“Why, no. Can’t say as I do.”
“Well, how about the day before,” Samantha continues. Bill hems and haws for a moment, but finally answers in the negative again. “Can you remember anything before I walked in earlier today?”
“Well,” Bill says, “Your mom was in here, and I was standing right here, and then – and then you walked in. I’m afraid that’s all I can tell you at the moment.” A look of concern settles upon his face. “Am I supposed to remember? I can’t really remember anything at all.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Seamus says amiably. “Seems to be normal. We can’t remember, either.”
“Oh, well in that case, then I guess it’s OK,” Bill says, smiling once more.
“Say, Bill,” Samantha says, grabbing a pair of baskets, “I think Mom and I forgot a few things when we were here last. You mind if me and my friend Seamus here grab ‘em now?”
“Oh, sure, help yourself,” Bill says cheerfully. Samantha tugs at Seamus’ shirt sleeve, and the pair work their way through the aisles, gathering bread, juice, canned and jarred goods. As they head for the door again, Samantha thanks Bill, and Seamus stops at the counter.
“Hey, do you know when you’ll be getting more stuff in,” he asks. Bill considers this for a moment, then shrugs his shoulders.
“Nope, but soon enough, I suppose. Can’t remember filling it, so whatever took care of it last time will probably take care of it next time. You check back later, OK?”
“Sure thing,” Seamus responds with a smile. He turns and follows Samantha out the door. “So that was weird,” he says, once the door is shut behind them.
“You think so? What’s normal supposed to look like, then?”
“I – well, I guess you got me there.” Seamus looks at the goods in their baskets. “Look, this should be good for a few days, time enough to get the lay of the land. I’ll bet there are other places like that around, maybe we can get more supplies from there and find out where it all comes from, and hopefully we’ll be able to figure out how to run it ourselves.”
“Fair enough. But if we can’t?”
“Well, then we’re boned. What do you want from me?”
“Plan B,” Samantha says evenly. Seamus reasons out the meaning of the phrase, and decides it’s a good idea.
“I guess we can roam around until we find someone else who’s figured it out, and learn from them. Or take what we need anyway, if they won’t help us.” Back at Tina’s driveway, Samantha stops and stares at the bumper of her Jeep. After a moment, she says,
“No, none of that. I can do you one better.” Seamus follows her eyes to a purple bumper sticker with white letters that says:
You want an education?
GO TO A LIBRARY!
“Library, huh?” Samantha nods. In Seamus’ mind’s eye, walls of books stretch out before him, and faint recollections of mazes of shelves and hours of research gnaw at the edge of his awareness. “Well, OK, then you’ve got your plan B out of me. I think this is our new plan A.”
“Agreed,” Samantha says. She sets down her basket on the hood of her Jeep, takes her list and pen out of her purse, and uses the windshield to write above item number one:
0. FIND A LIBRARY!
She winks at Seamus, grabs her basket, and they head inside.
“Welcome back, sweetie,” Tina says as Samantha & Seamus set their baskets on the counter top. “How's Bill? Did you find what you were looking for?”
“Hi, Mom! Bill's fine, and we got some more food. This ought to hold us over for a while. Hey, do you know where a library is?” Tina's eyes gloss over and she smiles warmly as she speaks.
“Oh, you and I used to go to the library all the time. Do you remember?” Bean bag chairs and children's books and her infant daughter bubble up in Tina's mind.
“No, but that's OK for now. Do you know where a library is?”
“Well, we'd sit down on the bean bag chairs and read together. You were such a smart young child, Sammy.” Tina places a hand gently on her daughter's shoulder.
“Awesome. Great. So where's a library? Can we go there now?”
“Why, sure,” Tina says, “I'd love to go again! Let me go grab my things.” Tina disappears, and Samantha sighs as Seamus starts unloading the baskets into the pantry and the refrigerator. Moments later, Tina is back with her purse. “OK, I'm ready to go!”
“Excellent! Where are we going,” Samantha asks.
“Why, to the library, silly! We were just talking about that.”
“Right, but where is the library, Mom?”
“Well, it's -” Tina trails off. “Hum. I'm not quite sure.” She waves a hand dismissively. “Oh, I'm sure I'll remember when we get on our way.” Samantha sighs again, but at least Tina is now dedicated to the task at hand.
“Seamus, grab some food, will you?” Now Seamus sighs, grabs a basket, and tosses half a dozen jars into it from the pantry, more or less at random.
“OK, let's boogie,” he says, his task complete. The trio heads back out into the late morning sunshine.
“I'll drive,” Samantha volunteers as they walk down the driveway. She pulls the driver's side door handle, but nothing happens. Staring dumbly for a moment, as though she thought she ought to know what to do, Samantha eventually remembers that some doors can be unlocked with keys, and she digs through her purse for them. “Ooh,” she says to herself, finding her cellular phone as well. She unlocks her door, then reaches across and unlocks the passenger door for Tina as Seamus hops into the back. Climbing into her seat, Samantha flips open her phone and sees a black screen. She pushes buttons, but nothing happens. She looks around for the Power button, finds it, presses it – and nothing happens. She holds it in for a few seconds and releases it, and still nothing happens. “Shit,” she exclaims in exasperation.
“Oh, dear,” Tina says. Samantha keeps fiddling with her phone, manages to open the battery compartment, and pulls out the battery. The contacts are all corroded, and the label shows mild burns. Samantha replaces the battery and cover, and tosses her latest paperweight into the back.
“Ow!” Seamus rises from the back, where he was digging around under a tied-down blanket.
“Sorry,” Samantha says. “My phone's fuckered. Yours?” Seamus pulls his out of his pocket, having absentmindedly placed it there when he dressed, and finds that his, too, is entirely non-functional.
“Nah, I got nothin',” he says at last.
“Here's a map,” Tina says, pulling an Atlas off of the floor.
“Great,” Samantha says, inserting her key into the ignition. “See if you can find a library around here.”
“Where's here,” Seamus asks as Samantha turns her key. Nothing happens. No chugging, no coughing, no nothing. “Hey, does anyone know where we actually are?”