The first thing he noticed was the cold. The air hung over him, motionless and icy. He felt the stiffness in his joints before he even had a chance to move his body. A thick cloud of drowsiness filled his head, making it hard to keep his eyes open on his first attempt at assessing the scene around him. An alarmingly sharp pain pierced his chest as he moved to sit up. Agony wracked his torso and he was sent gasping back down onto the linoleum. Breathless, he blinked rapidly, fighting to clear the blurriness from his eyes. The center of his chest stung with a pain that radiated from his sternum, and he wrapped his arms around himself as he tried to make sense of his surroundings. He was in a strange room—a long, rectangular space with high ceilings and fluorescent lights that flickered every so often, casting jumping shadows against the plain, bleached walls. A few chairs and tables were strewn about; some carelessly knocked over as if a group of people had hastily fled, and some set up in neat lines with clean metal chairs pushed in neatly around the rectangular tables. He opened his mouth and tried to speak, his lips moving soundlessly as he tried to work up the energy to call out.
"Is someone there?" he finally managed to croak, his raspy voice cutting through the silence of the room. The only response he received was the sound of his words echoing through the empty space. He was completely and utterly alone, he thought. Ignoring the searing pain in his side, the boy thrust his body upward and pressed his back against the wall behind him as he struggled to his feet. Gripping his aching sides, he drew in a sharp breath as he examined himself; his jeans were tear-free and his red sneakers bore not a single scuff mark or grass stain. What the hell is going on? He thought, seeing no visible wounds; no gashes, no bruised flesh or torn skin, no blood staining his plain grey t-shirt. There was no visible sign of anything wrong, and yet pain radiated throughout his body. The hairs on the back of his neck prickled as a faint, mechanical whirring began overhead. He wanted to ignore it and continue with his survey of the room, but his thoughts were cut short by the sound overhead. The hum had begun to grown, its volume growing stronger and more pronounced. Suddenly, a deafening squeal of metal on metal erupted; a hideous grinding, shattering, screeching sound filled the room and rattled in his bones.
"Who's there?!" he shouted into the abyss of flickering fluorescent lights, eyes darting back and forth as he searched for the source of that sound-that horrible sound. It grew and grew, drowning out his cries, filling his head and pushing out all rational thought from his mind. Terror gripped him tight; his muscles tensed with panic as he squeezed his eyes shut and pressed his hands to his ears, trying to block it out.
"Please," he whimpered. "Please. Someone. Just...t-tell me where I am. I don't know where I am. I don't..." His throat tightened and tears stung the corners of his eyes.
This can't be real. It isn't real. He thought franticly. This is not real. I'm asleep. I'm asleep and I'm going to wake up any minute now. He'd known at some point some way to tell between dreams and reality. There was some pointer written in a book that proclaimed it could teach "lucid dreaming to beginners", a topic he'd once been fascinated by. The earsplitting noise made it hard to think, and he pounded his fist into his forehead, willing himself to remember. Fingers! His eyes flew open. If you have extra fingers, it means you're dreaming!
He stared down at his hand, counting over and over.
One, two, three, four...
Five. Only five. I'm not dreaming? I can't...be awake. No. This has to be a dream. The book was wrong, or he had remembered it wrong, or he hadn't remembered anything at all. There was no way in hell that he could be awake and locked in some strange room without someone—anyone—knowing where he was. His chest was aching again, as if he were being stabbed rhythmically, over and over again directly in the sternum. His stomach plummeted and he slid back down the wall, bringing his knees up to his chest, hyperventilating as he cradled his head in his hands. He just wanted the pain and the noise to go away.
He remained in this position--arms clutching his legs, forehead resting on his knees—for what seemed like hours, though he had no concept of time in the windowless room. In an instant, the room went quiet, the noise with its horrible mechanical wailing had finally ceased. He raised his head and, breathing a sigh of relief, opened his eyes again. The only other objects in the room were the pieces of furniture, and he still sat with his back to the wall. No change, he thought with bitter disappointment. At least it was finally quiet. He didn't want to be greedy, seeing as he had already had one wish granted, but now the only things he wanted were a grilled cheese sandwich and a way out. His stomach had begun to growl fiercely and he couldn't remember the last time he'd eaten. He stood once more, feeling his way around the room in a desperate search for some sort of hidden door, some kind of anything that would help him get out. His muscles strained, his body fighting him every step of the way as the aching that consumed every nerve in his body willed him to give up and sit back down. The frigid air only served to make his breathing more shallow, icy air burning his already overworked lungs. He'd come full circle, examined every piece of his white-walled prison-and there was nothing.
"No," he whispered. "No. No, no please!" He slammed his fist down on the top of the closest table, and winced as he did so. "Please," he pleaded to God, maybe, or to anyone who could hear him on the other side of the walls. "If you let me out, I'll do whatever you want. Just let me go...let me go home." No response. Had he expected one? Not really. But the lack of a reply still filled him with rage. He exploded, fury erupting out of him as he released his pain into the still, cold air of that strange, white room. His foot connected with one of the chairs on the floor, sending it hurling across the room where is smashed into the opposite wall. He dropped down into a crouch, pounding his fist into the ground as he howled in rage and agony and fear.
"Someone's a little angry," The boy stood and whirled towards the voice, finding it to belong to a pretty girl with white-blonde hair, perched on the edge of one of the tables, studying her cuticles and picking at the skin with feverish intent. "There's really no need for a tantrum though...not when you could use some of that energy to get yourself out of here," She looked up then, meeting his gaze evenly.
"Who...are you?" He gasped, blinking rapidly to make sure he wasn't hallucinating after his little episode. The pain had consumed him again, and he felt even more exhausted than he thought possible. He fought the strong urge to sink to the ground and instead stared intently at the girl who now stood before him.
"Not important. But maybe I should ask you the same question. Who are you?" She strolled towards him, stopping when she was only a few feet away. He scoffed, opened his mouth to speak, and froze. A wave of confusion settled over him, panic gripping his heart. He didn't know his name; he didn't know who he was. Add that to the friggin' list. A voice in the back of his mind jeered at him. He shook his head, trying to clear it and conjure up some sort of memory, some image that would give him a clue as to who he was. His heart raced as he wracked his brain, trying to come up with the answers to the questions that now filled his swimming head. The girl waited, arms crossed over her chest as she stared at him expectantly.
"No name, then?" she asked finally, pushing back the long strands of hair that had fallen over her face. "That's fine. Most people can't remember how to walk or talk in this place, let alone throw a little hissy-fit. You're doing better than most," She chuckled and began to circle him, taking small, slow steps as she glowered at him.
"What. Exactly. Is. 'This place'?" he hissed through clenched teeth. She laughed and rolled her eyes.
"Most of the time they just lay around, just waiting for whatever is gonna come next," She continued, ignoring his questions and chuckling softly. He didn't respond, and instead stared back at her with a nagging feeling of familiarity. There was just something about her...when she noticed that he wasn't going to speak again, the girl sighed and rolled her eyes.
"To answer your question, I don't know. I've actually got no idea. But if you do happen to find out, bucko, please do tell," He gritted his teeth, his feelings of anxiety and confusion briefly replaced by mild irritation at her heavy use of sarcasm.
"Look. I'd just love to sit around here all day and play...well, whatever it is we are playing here...but I'd really like to get the hell out of here and go home," Assuming that I have one, he thought grimly.
"Here's the deal, pal," She said, turning to face him again, taking three long strides so that their faces were inches away from each other. "I can't just 'get you out of here.' That's completely up to you. I'm just here to get the ball rolling, because you obviously can't do that for yourself," His eyebrows furrowed and he folded his arms over his still-aching chest.
"I don't understand," He said, confusion painted in his voice.
"You should really get that printed on a t-shirt," She muttered under her breath, chuckling as she resumed chewing on her fingernails.
"Cut the shit," He snapped. Her eyes widened as he barked at her. "If you're supposed to 'help me help myself' or whatever, just do it already! Tell me what I've got to do to get out of here!"
"You have to think," She snarled. "Stop stomping around here like a mindless toddler throwing tantrums and think." She jabbed a long, bony finger into his chest, then his forehead. "Use whatever you've got up there to remember."
"Remember wha-...?" His question was cut short by the images that began to flash through his mind.
When he closed his eyes, he could tell there was something different-something wrong. He opened them again and found that he was no longer in the white room, but was instead standing at the side of a long stretch of rain-soaked highway. The scent of wet asphalt and the roaring of the wind rustling through the leaves of the trees that lined the road filled his nose and ears. There was another smell too…something hot and burning. Gasoline?
He stumbled forward, feeling drawn towards the opposite side of the road. Peering over the shoulder, he stared down into a ditch; about seven feet down and ten feet from the highway there lay the wreckage of a car. It was red or maybe silver-he couldn't quite tell, as it was mostly twisted and shredded metal now. He slid down the shale to the forest floor, making his way past several small trees that had been swept away by the steaming hunk of metal that had barreled through them. He began to circle the wreck, a pit forming in his stomach. Had he been here before? It all seemed so oddly familiar. As he rounded the back bumper of the car, he tripped and fell forward with arms outstretched, hitting the ground with a solid thud. He rubbed his wrists, cursing his clumsy feet and looking back to see whatever it was that had tripped him up.
His eyes locked on a pair of sneakers. Red sneakers. His eyes froze, tracing up the body to find the face of the owner. It was a boy, lying on his back with dark red stains spreading across his grey t-shirt. His eyes were closed, his face covered in gashes and scrapes-no doubt from the shattered glass that lay in splinters around him. A varsity jacket, snagged on a jagged shard of metal, swayed and flapped in the breeze as it dangled from the window of the car. The boy looked back down at the body lying before him. His chest wasn't moving, and the boy couldn't help but grab his shoulders and try to shake him awake. He's not breathing, the boy thought, and the panic turned his blood ice cold as it ran through his veins.
"Hey!" The boy shouted, scrambling up the side of the ditch and back onto the road. He raised his arms, waving them as he tried to flag down a car that zipped by. They can't see it, he realized in horror, they can't see the car. Tearing his gaze away from the destroyed vehicle, he searched for a house, or someplace he could run to for help. As he searched, he noticed a figure; a dark shape bobbing up and down as it strode towards him. Finally, he thought, sighing in relief. Someone could finally help this poor kid. The figure drew closer, one arm outstretched to the road, thumb out. It was a hitchhiker—a girl hitchhiker, and young too. She was maybe 17, 18 at the most. Tall, and light-haired with a beaten-up backpack slung over one shoulder, she paced towards him, pausing when a car neared her. The hand that wasn't out towards the road was at her mouth, and he could see her gnawing at the fingernail on her thumb.
"Hey! Over here!" He shouted again, but she paid him no attention, walking right past him even as he ran at her with arms waving like a madman. Finally she was close enough for him to see her face; she wasn't necessarily striking or unique, just a plain girl with dirty blonde hair that fell in a thick curtain around her dirt-smudged face. But there was just something about her that struck him as familiar, something he recognized about her. He knew her...he was sure of it. He watched her as she passed, and then stopped abruptly a few feet away. He squinted, trying to figure out what exactly she was doing. A high-pitched, ear-splitting scream pierced the cold air, cutting through the silence like a knife. He watched as the girl dropped her bag at the side of the road and rushed down the hill, sliding down the gravel and stumbling over the half-buried rocks that jutted out from the moistened ground. She dropped to her knees right next to the body, pressing her ear against his blood-stained chest.
"Hey, hey! Look at me! Are you okay? Can you open your eyes?" Her voice was raspy, and she was shaking as she pushed her hands into his chest over and over in an attempt to restart his heart. Suddenly, he too could feel that weight pushing down against his chest, a solid area of pressure that drove into the center of his torso in time with her compressions. He looked down and he could see the stains of red on his shirt matching those of the boy on the ground. He dropped to his knees, his hand clutching his chest and the other grasping at the soaked patched of grass as he heaved and choked on the bile that rose in his throat. Red. All he could see was red. He was on his back now, his eyes heavy as he tried to keep them open. He tried to breath but his lungs felt like they were filled with water and he couldn't see anything, could only feel the pressure that pressed his chest in a steady, yet quick rhythm. One, two, three, four, five...
He managed to open his eyes just enough to see her face, hovering just above his. Her eyes were filled with tears, and her lips where moving but he couldn't hear the words that were coming out. She kept going, keeping a steady tempo as she pushed down on his chest. One, two, three, four, five...
"You're gonna be okay," She whispered. "They're coming to get you, and you're gonna be okay. I promise." He remembered it all now. He remembered the feeling of the leather under his hands as he cranked his steering wheel sharply, trying to avoid the animal that had leapt into his path. He remembered swerving, spinning, rolling. His car flying out of control, off the road, and down...so far down. The screeching metal and exploding glass, noises so loud that it felt like his head would explode. The pain of his skin being pierced by the shards and spikes of glass and steel, and his bones cracking as he was slammed from side to side. He could remember the sky, so clear and calm as he stared up, listening to the sound of the flapping of his varsity jacket as it hung from the driver's side window and his own raspy, shallow breathing. He wanted to mourn the loss of his car-or rather hunk of metal that had once been his car-his most prized possession. But instead, he could only focus on the pain. Everything hurt; he could feel his t-shirt, soaked with blood and rain water, sticking uncomfortably to his chest and the cold of the raindrops that continued to drip onto his face and exposed skin. All he could think of was the cold and the pain and the wetness and the...
"The accident," He gasped and looked to the girl, searching for some kind of confirmation that what he had just seen was real. She raised her eyebrows, waiting for him to finish. Instead, he slumped into one of the still-upright chairs. "I was...in an accident?" She didn't say a word, but the angry scowl on her face slid into a sympathetic frown, the fire in her eyes dulling as she watched him. His whole body was shaking, and he felt as though he might throw up. Saliva collected in his mouth and he swallowed hard several times while trying to breathe deeply.
"So I'm dead then," He mumbled flatly as he dropped his head into his hands.
"Maybe," she said, shrugging her shoulders, "but maybe not. I don't know the details. But here is what I do know. You are in this room for a reason. I didn't put you here, and I can't get you out. But I am here to help you; to help you remember. And you did remember. So that's a start. Maybe that means you're coming back."
"So now what?" He asked, looking back up at her, a spark of hope igniting in his chest. "Do you know how to get out? You know how to get me home? Or, back?"
"I know where the door is, and I'll show you. After that, I can't really do much."
"Fine," he muttered, raising himself out of the chair and gripping the back of it to steady himself as he balanced on his shaking legs. "That's good enough for me." The girl hopped off the table and paced over to the far wall. With one delicate hand, she pushed against the wall, revealing a large steel door. Stepping to the side, she held out her arm.
"Here it is: your ticket out of here."
"And this will get me home?" He asked, approaching the door cautiously with one hand outstretched, reaching for the handle. She didn't respond, and instead watched him intently as he twisted the handle and pulled the door open. It swung out with a loud screech, and he peered out with shaking legs and sweating palms. It was dark, and he couldn't see much of anything past the doorframe, but the air that blew in through it was warm-much warmer than the freezing air of this strange white place. His chest ached with familiarity; there was something good about this door...this door was going to get him home.
"Thank you. Really...I-I know I was an ass. But you helped me anyway. So...thanks for that," She smiled sadly, shaking her head slowly.
"I didn't do all that much. Wish I could have done more, really," She twisted a finger into her hair, avoiding his gaze.
"Well, what about you? Shouldn't you come with me?" She shook her head again.
"That door is for you. Don't worry about me," He raised an eyebrow at her, watching as she shifted uncomfortably.
"You're not real, are you?" He asked. Her eyes widened, and he felt immediately ashamed. "I'm sorry, that was rude. It's just...how else could we both be here? In this room? This...whatever it is," The girl flipped her hair back and shrugged.
"How else?" Her question hung in the air between them, and they locked eyes for a brief moment before she glanced away anxiously. He fought the urge to let loose the stream of questions he had for her and instead turned away, facing the door head on. The boy took a deep breath, and stepped out into the warm, open air—finally free.
"Alright, that's enough. He's been gone for almost 20 minutes," The man pulled his rubber gloves off with a snap, looking to the woman standing across from him. Her blue scrubs stained with sweat and patches of blood. She stopped her compressions, removing her hands from the boy's chest and grasped the table, using it to keep herself from crashing to the ground in exhaustion. The erratic beats of the heart rate monitor that had once filled the room gave way to the high-pitched wail of a flatline.
"There's nothing else we can do?" She asked, her voice quivering slightly. She wouldn't normally question the doctor's decisions, but damn, this kid was just so young; he even looked a bit like her son...only 17, his life just beginning. Was just beginning, she reminded herself.
"I'm afraid not," the doctor muttered, wiping beads of sweat off of his flushed skin. "He didn't have much hope to begin with, though. Frankly, I'm surprised he made it to the hospital with a pulse." The nurse glanced over her shoulder, through the window that let into the waiting room. She stared at the girl with long, dirty blonde hair, clutching her knees to her chest as she rocked back and forth slightly. A police officer towered over her, his hat tucked under his arm as he scribbled notes onto a small yellow pad. Occasionally, she would look up at him and nod or shake her head, wiping her tears as she gnawed at the skin around her fingernails.
"What about the girl? Did she know him?" The doctor asked, following his nurses gaze. She shook her head.
"No, but she is the one who found him, I guess. She was the only person who stopped, probably the only person who actually saw him. He was just some kid... lying in a ditch for God knows how long." The doctor sighed and shook his head. He looked to another nurse who was standing near a red telephone, covering the mouthpiece with one hand.
"His parents are here now. They're waiting to talk to you."
"Alright then, time to call it," He sighed, removing his scrub cap and tucking it into the pocket of his lab coat. The nurse glanced up at the clock, her voice barely audible over the sound of the electronic keening as she murmured.
"Time of death, 12:27 AM."