I wonder often if the hotel will stop breathing. I wait for it, most days, like you wait for all unfortunate, yet inevitable things. Like death.
It’s in the walls, it is, and days like this last Friday of autumn, I swear it’ll drive me absolutely crazy. I walk down to the lobby bar, letting my fingers trail the beige wainscoting in the hall. Even though my senses have dulled in my old age, the dust that permeates the place tickles my nose and throat.
“Martini,” I say to J.D., the young bartender who is nice enough but reminds me too much of the person I’ve spent a lifetime trying to forget.
He smiles his gap toothed and knowing smile. “Rough day, eh?”
I shake my head slowly. Not rough exactly. Just don’t care for my room on days when the place feels this way. I can’t stand the thought of my gold brocade curtains and the huge and empty king sized bed and oversized room. It’s filled with shadows, like the ones that have crouched close by nearly my whole life.
I rarely let myself think about Kurt, but I can’t help it now, remembering the whisper of his fingers on my shoulders, his gentle nature. I swallow the heap of a lump in my throat.
J.D’s eyes narrow. “You okay?”
“I am. I think.”
His gaze stays on my lips as the words slowly leave them. Wetness dribbles on my mouth and I grab a napkin as J.D. turns.
“Olive?” he asks as he grabs a glass to make my drink.
“Please,” I say, wiping at my lips. Blood? Blood! I soak through the napkin and then another, feeling something rolling on my tongue.
I spit into the napkin and two teeth tumble out.
Not now. This can’t be.
It’s been ages. Too long for this.
“I think I’ll take that drink in my room,” I say, trying to keep my voice balanced while I turn away. My breath is ragged in my chest, my lungs battling between full collapse and bursting. “Can you send it up?”
“Sure, of course. You’re in room…
“Right. Will be right up.”
In the elevator, I ball the napkins against my mouth as my lungs keep doing that should-we-keep-going battle. I close my eyes with my back to the mirrored wall as the elevator begins its ascent, the dusty old car clanking its way slowly upward, as always. I feel the blood seeping into the napkins and my all too familiar panic begins to swell.
The elevator finally stops at my floor and I tap my foot relentlessly as I wait for it to squeal open. I walk double-time down the hall. My lungs rattle as I search for my key in my bag.
I’ve spent my whole life scared. Reliving the worst of it. But why tonight? I squeeze the napkin in my hand, the teeth inside hard and real inside it. This is not a hallucination.
I’m surprised by the tray next to my door with the double martini sitting there. How in the world did J.D. get up here faster than me? I stop digging for my key and bend to pick up the glass. I take two large gulps with my eyes closed, loving how the warmth slides down my throat and into my belly. My pulse slows to a trot. I try to ignore the ring of blood I’ve left on the edge of my glass and the tooth floating next to my olive in my martini. I finally dig my key from the bottom of my purse and with fumbling fingers and slide it into the lock. I have to jiggle the knob in that special way I’ve learned before the door finally swings open. I take another swig before stepping into my dark room. Weird, because I swore I left the side lamp on. My brain certainly isn’t as sharp as it used to be. I drain the rest of the martini, wondering if I could possibly get another. I never, ever have more than one, but today is… different.
“It sure is,” a voice says from somewhere in the dark.
My back scrapes against the dresser when I jump back. I turn toward the door too late. It’s already closed, the little bit of light from the hallway gone.
“Don’t be scared.”
The voice. It’s familiar, maybe?
But no. It can’t be. The hair on the back of my neck rises. It’s just because he’s been on my mind.
“Kurt?” I barely let the name out of my mouth, because it can’t be. Can it? It’s been…
“Decades, darling, decades.”
The only sound in the room is the sharp intake of breath. How is he doing that? He did it before, when I first walked in. Is he reading my…
“Stop.” He says softly. “Stop overanalyzing.”
“But I didn’t say anything. I was just thinking-”
“Listen,” he moves closer. “We don’t have much time.”
“What do you mean?” My whisper sounds different than my normal voice. Younger. It’s as if I’m suddenly the age I was when I met Kurt. God, high school. I brush my hair back from my face, surprised to find it wispy and long. “What’s going on?” I ask in a ten-on-the-richter-scale voice.
My mind flashes as I hear him cross the room. I feel suddenly young and without the cynicism that’s leaked into me over time. Without all the fear knowing him all those years ago clamped over the rest of life, like a suffocating blanket that never let the light in. That horrible fear.
I grip the dresser behind me, my chin falling to my chest. Breathing isn’t easy as I remember. All that blood.
His footfalls falter. “Shhhh,” he says. “Just clear your mind. This will be easier that way.”
I wrap my arms around my middle, feeling for the bruises on my ribs and arms, as if it happened yesterday.
“That night.” The words sail out of me, on a barely-there breath. “That fight.” I whimper, remembering the way I was beaten, broken ribs, teeth knocked out. The way Kurt was… well…
“Shhhh,” he says against my lips. I touch his hair. It’s long, like it always was. He smells the same too, that soap his mother always had, and cigarette smoke.
“You’ve been dead,” I say. “For a long time. I tried to forget that night. Always tried. But I never did because I always waited and now…”
His lips find mine and I’m transported. Across decades and state lines to a time and place where nothing bad had happened yet.
“What did you wait for?” He asks in a husky voice, his hands tangling in my suddenly long hair. Tears course down my cheeks.
“This!” I say, because it’s true. Many mourn first love lost, but when your first love is killed and the blood has stained deep into your skin, you don’t very well get over it. No, you spend a lifetime mourning, looking over your shoulder for violence that you hope will not return. Holding Kurt now is something. Like a drink of cool water after a desert lifetime.
“I love you,” he says with his forehead pressed to mine. I reach up and touch his face like a blind woman reaching in the dark. Every feature as I remember. Every contour. “Always have and always will.”
My breath falls out through my feet, through the floor and down down down, away from me. My tears are close behind.
Why and how is this happening? My hands shake against his chest with my impossible fantasy come true.
“That man,” I say, remembering the way I had stumbled over Kurt’s body when I left to find help. “The one who robbed us that night.”
“That man?” Kurt’s voice sounds strange. “That man?”
“He was the devil himself.”
Sudden lights from the alley brighten my room in blues and reds. Police?
The face in front of me isn’t Kurt. It’s him. It’s the devil himself. Sneering at me all these years later. My blood turns ice and I stumble backward, tripping over the bed’s corner and onto the floor.
“The devil himself?” He says. “That the best you can do?”
Rubbing my temples, I run my fingers through my short and spiky hair. The room tilts, the whole earth seeming to spin on its axis. Where is Kurt?
The truth punches me. He’s gone. Of course he’s gone. After I waited my whole damn life.
I must be going crazy.
“Not crazy,” the man says. My heart thunders as I bite on my already bloody lip, my eyes darting all over the dark room. There’s no way I can look into the face of my nightmare. I crawl backwards, but he leans and grabs me roughly by the elbow. “But you’re going somewhere.” The room lights up then – red then white then black again. He pushes me toward the window.
“Jump,” he hisses in my ear.
“Are you crazy?” I’m frantic now. This can’t be it. Can’t be! “I’ll die!” I remember the way he hit me that night, the way he twisted his hands at Kurt’s throat before taking that knife out.
Yet he hasn’t aged a bit. Or changed, it seems. I remember this pumping fear and hanging onto the excruciating edge of life that I didn’t want to leave.
He laughs in my ear, a wet and gargling sound. “The time is here. This time.”
So many things are different and so many the same.
I still don’t want to leave.
When Jennifer Walkup isn’t writing or reading, she’s spending time with her husband and young sons, listening to Red Hot Chili Peppers, and coming up with costume ideas for Halloween. She’s obsessed with good coffee and new recipes and likes broccoli on her pizza, flowers in her hair, flip-flops on her feet, and the number 13. A member of SCBWI and RWA, Jennifer also serves as fiction editor for The Meadowland Review and teaches creative writing at The Writers Circle. Her first novel, SECOND VERSE, was released in 2013. Check out her website at http://www.jenniferwalkup.com/
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Awesome story, Jennifer! Loved it!