Her new room wasn’t ready yet when she returned to the Inverness. That was just fine, she told Jordan, shivering in waterlogged clothes. She left the lobby and went past the bar, which was unmanned and off-limits by way of red suede stanchions. Teeth chattering, she poured herself two coffees in the self-serve lounge and tried to do a little work.
Nothing from her boss. No email. No check-in. No “don’t bother coming in Monday.”
Between refills of the hot motor oil the café had to offer, she began researching funeral parlors. Most were closed, unavailable to book.
Like the dead had nowhere to go, either.
Some time later, Jordan showed up with a white paper bag and said that there was a cheeseburger inside, that the cheeseburger was for her, and that her room was ready.
The new room was on the sixteenth floor, all the way down the hall. Luggage wheels bumping behind her, she wondered how long it had been since anyone else walked her path of burgundy carpet. Motion-sensing lights flicked on and chased away the abyss just a half-second behind her advance.
Next to the fire escape, she beeped into the room, fast-food peace offering in hand. Between bites, she took the steps to draw herself a bath. The sandwich was cold and chewy. It was also the first food she’d had all day.
Sufficiently full and steaming, the bath tub beckoned. A pile of wet, freezing clothes shed onto the floor, and she melted into hot water and gasped at the sharp change in body temperature. Resting her eyes, she took the last bite of burger.
Something tickled at her nose. Pinching the space in front of her face, she found a feather between her thumb and pinky. It drooped so a single bead of water fell from it into the tub.
Something about that drop of water made her want out. Drawing her knees in, she looked up.
A pigeon, pinned to the shower head by galvanized wire, spasmed weakly above. The wire around its throat ended in either tip piercing its chest. Something white and small flapped from its twitching leg. Another feather drifted into the bath.
In her comic escape from the tub, Andi slipped and flailed, winding up on the floor. Water sloshed in her face. She spat and moaned. Half-dry, she got into a hotel-issue robe and only then did she throw up her cheeseburger into the toilet.
Over her shoulder, she glared up at the dying bird while wiping her mouth. She stood and semi-slid across linoleum to rip the paper hooked to its leg. It absorbed the moisture on her palm readily. A page from a Bible.
She wadded it up and tossed it into the toilet with her sick.
Staring into the bowl, she licked her teeth and said, “Okay, you want quiet?”
Her head rolled over her shoulders. As her vision flared in the bathroom light, she inhaled until her chest hurt and bellowed:
“You want quiet?”
She wrapped her hair in a towel and stuffed her feet into crinkly slippers. Arms stiff and searching, she grabbed as many loose items as she could fit into a broad hug: garbage can, coffee pot, iron. Then she staggered headfirst into the hall.
“Have I been too loud for you?” She shrieked. Between wild howls and yelps, stomping up the corridor, she threw the sundry articles in her clutches. The coffee pot shattered against a door. A water glass nailed the halogen hallway light so it burst and sizzled.
“Is this too loud?” she screamed, the force enough to tear at her throat. “I wouldn’t want to disturb you, you sick asshole!”
Just as she thrust the garbage bin into an exit sign, an unexpected, new sound pierced her ears. Ungodly sound.
Blaring, interspersed wails cried “fire.” The overhead lights dimmed in time, so the startling effect of the fire alarm could not be ignored. Each blast of the siren made her eardrums crackle. She dropped the alarm clock wedged into the crook of her arm to cover her ears. In the on-off blinking hall light, she found the stairwell door and shouldered it open.
The rubber soles of her slippers made a nimble descent easy. The strobing lights, flashing between blinding and pitch-black, did not. Both hands wrapped around the rail, she made her winding way down two, five, ten sets of stairs. The wagging end of the towel wrapped around her head brushed her face, covered her eyes.
Sixth floor. Fifth floor.
The alarm was so loud. The bursts of light and dark so disorienting. She’d forgotten why she was out in the hall to begin with. Instead, her train of thought was hazy, adrenaline pumping all cogent thinking from her mind.
Fourth floor. Third floor.
And then something like consciousness returned; enough awareness to ask, Where’s the fire? Some semblance of a voice in her head to say, You didn’t pull that alarm, so only one person could’ve.
But by then she was on the final set of steps.
And he was at the bottom.
She stopped, with half a flight to go.
In flashing, stark contrast, the hotel’s only other guest stood blocking the lobby exit. In one moment he was a hulking shadow. The next, a blurred afterimage—featureless, tall, topped with that filthy brimmed hat, head framed in a wide collar.
The breath stuck in Andi’s windpipe.
In choppy, surreal leaps between light, the man moved up. Too late, Andi registered his pursuit and whipped around. She raced, two, three stairs at a time. There was no hearing his progress behind her, not with the alarm.
She dared a glance back.
His fingers brushed her nose.
She screamed; couldn’t hear it herself.
A sharp turn and a fresh flight—she scaled up, up. No longer did her hands bother with a rail. The only thing to remind her she wasn’t floating was the harsh slap of her feet against concrete.
Then something tugged at the cotton belt wrapped around her robe. Startled, her next leap fell short and her big toe jammed into the face of a stair—flaring pain jolted up her knee. She gasped, and for an instant the life left her.
She fell back.
Tailbone first, she hit the ground and bounded down ten feet of sharp angles and unforgiving architecture. The back of her head collided with the wall.
The sporadic sight she was afforded further confused. Now, in the lit seconds between darkness, she saw two of everything. A pair of feet, trailed by ghosts of themselves, clicked down the steps with slow confidence now, toward her.
And in moments, the man from the penthouse was looming over her.
Andi lurched forward, crumpled back. The man squatted, so all she could see, when she could see, was his face and narrow shoulders. That dented, frayed hat.
Light. A black, gloved hand curled before his face.
Dark. Andi’s throat closed up.
Light. The man’s mask was gone; wrapped around a finger. His lips were spread, covered in red wet, like his gums. One or the other was bleeding.
Dark. Something gently brushed her cheek.
Light. He was looking up. Up, at nothing.
And there was silence. The alarm stopped. The lights stayed on. The man looked more absurd by the second, mouthing wordlessly at the ceiling in PJ bottoms and a heavy overcoat. The heat off him emanated damp and vile around Andi’s midriff.
“Wha do—you—wan?” she said. Her voice was hoarse; she hardly recognized it.
The man’s back curled in a feline arch. He shuddered and Andi felt his thighs convulse around her hips. She held her mouth and eyes shut tight and turned her head. It seemed any second he might vomit.
Instead, he said, “I’ve told you.”
Writhing, but weak, Andi grunted: “What?”
He looked down. A dried black bead glistened in the corner of one eye. “I want quiet,” he said. One sputtering sigh fell from his chest in staggered bursts. “I want rest.” Then it seemed his body simply failed him, that his muscles and bones themselves revolted and fell limp, and like a sack of wet cement he plopped right over her. Andi whimpered under his shocking weight. She struggled, nudged and pushed. But her head was pounding, the back of her skull throbbing. Her arms seemed unable to interpret the command to lift, to break free. His ear was on her cheek, cold and rubbery.
A low mewl echoed through the man’s chattering teeth. “Just want to sleep.”
Andi heard herself let out a sharp bleat of disgust. Eugh. It caught in her throat. Her fingers tingled. Her ribs rippled under the pain of the weight.
The man began to snore.
She looked up at the ceiling, seeing through a shrinking scope. Soon her vision would be a pinhole, then nothing. She’d pass out and they’d both lie here unconscious for God knew how long. Together. Only—no.
No sooner did the idea cross her mind than she was wide awake, with a jolt. Clarity.
She started rocking, teetering. The movement was miniscule at first, but her strength and momentum built. The act caused the back of her head to rub against the wall and gave her fresh bursts of stabbing pain. But she kept at it, and eventually she felt the man shift on her. One of his arms fell, like a wet noodle, off her shoulder and onto the ground.
Encouraged, she kept going, now with an upward pressure. The man’s head lolled away from her. He sniffed sharply, but did not wake.
Then, a commotion below. The stairwell door opened with a ka-chunk and a pneumatic hiss. One shoefall clapped and drifted up to Andi.
“Hey!” she said. “Hey! Here!”
“Andrea?” Jordan’s voice. Shoes squealed and scuffed on concrete stairs until he was there on the landing with them, standing over the hotel guests sprawled on the floor.
“Andrea!” The concierge bent over the sleeping man, scooping him up in a sloppy bear hug. Andi pushed with all her strength and was free. The man rolled over onto his side, while Jordan lost his footing and hit the ground.
He got to his knees and asked, “Are you all right? Are you hurt?”
To her own surprise, she sounded almost happy to answer: “Mm-hmm.”
While she straightened up with the wall at her back for balance, she could feel the spreading warmth and wetness that fell from the back of her head down her neck and along her spine. The red on her fingertips told the rest of the story.
She heard Jordan say her name one more time. Then there was nothing.
The sun had not yet risen when Andi woke up in the emergency room. The nurse, a pink-clad black woman twice her age, had one foot out the door and noticed Andi shifting, blinking herself awake. The nurse’s eyes smiled over the M95 strapped around her jaw.
“Well, good morning,” the nurse said. “I’ve got something for you.”
She slid through the gap in the door and returned inhumanly fast with a box of apple juice. Andi took it with a greed that shocked herself. It felt heavy—her arms and chest sore— as she slurped from the spaghetti-thin straw.
Looking down she saw she was still in her bathrobe from the hotel. She reached up a hand and winced before her fingertips even made contact with the thick gauze there.
“How long have I—?” She cleared her throat. “Was I…?”
“Just a couple hours,” said the nurse. She took Andi’s empty juice box, held it gently like a baby bird between two fingers. “You’re fine. You only sleep like the dead.”
“What about the man?” Andi’s tongue, numb, fought hard against her forming speech. More juice would be nice, but not worth the asking.
“The man who— H-he was there with me. He was sick. So sick, he—” A lump welled up in Andi’s gullet. She swallowed.
“I don’t know about any man,” said the nurse, her eyes blossoming into pools of deep pity. Or maybe disdain, distrust. “Never saw any man. He relation to you?”
“No.” And then, frantic: “My mother!” Andi sat up in the bed, almost fell back over with the rush of it. “She’s here. Can I see her?”
The nurse’s shoulders tensed, ready for a familiar-by-now battle. “I’m sorry, miss. Due to restrictions set by the state and the board of health, this facility is not at this time allowing visitors to—”
“She’s not a visitor,” Andi said. She squeezed her kneecaps. Felt the warmth of her palms on them. “She’s a patient, too. In the ICU. If you could just let me—”
“I’m so sorry,” said the nurse. “If there was anything I could do…”
“Yeah.” Andi stopped her. “Okay. I get it.”
The nurse reached the door. Pen in hand, she flicked her wrist at the clipboard pinned to the wall, checking off a column of boxes. Then, back facing Andi, she clenched a fist. She turned. “What’s her name, hon’?”
Andi told her.
“You interested in another apple juice?” the nurse said. “There’s more a couple floors up. How ‘bout you hop in a wheelchair and help me carry some boxes of Mott’s down?”
The even look in her eyes gave Andi nothing to go on. So Andi said nothing, dared nothing.
The nurse took a step closer to the bed. “I could use the company,” she said. She held out an upturned palm. “Maybe we’ll pass your mom’s room. Could be on the way.”
“Yeah,” Andi said. She was shaking when she took the nurse’s hand. “I guess I could help you out.”
In a week full of them, Andi thought the most bizarre experience she’d never forget was being helped into a protective, sterile suit by her nurse savior.
Laney, as her named happened to be, threaded Andi’s weak and aching limbs into the thick, unforgiving sheathing of the hazmat, or whatever it was the doctors called the alien-looking outfit. Inside the suit was womb-like, the sound of her own blood pumping through her head the loudest thing she could hear. Laney guided her by the hand out of the prep area and into the halls of the ICU. She was trembling under all that gear, her anxious breaths echoing as they fogged up her view through plastic.
They walked and walked, garnering suspicious or downright hateful stares from some of the other hospital staff. But Laney would just nod and wave, as if she were doing the most expected thing in the world. Just when Andi thought they must have passed every room on the floor, that her mother was no longer here, Laney put her hand up and they stopped.
The nurse put a finger up to her concealed lips.
Muffled, but with clear meaning, Laney said: “Sleeping.”
Andi nodded. The nurse pushed the door open wide. At first there seemed to be nothing to see but machinery, beeping screens and whirring mechanical behemoths tangled in multicolored wires. Then Andi saw her.
Her mother, shrunken and diminished. A shadow, a vapor, tangled in yellow blankets. Just a bony head, no more than skin and skull, peeping from the heavy cloth. A see-through cone pressed into the flesh around her nose and mouth, a coiled tube leading from it to one of the bigger devices.
Her eyelids were closed but fluttering. Her chest didn’t rise and fall so much as unfurl and recoil. The hair left on her head was patchy, blond wisps betraying the scabbed scalp underneath.
Andi gasped for air. She looked around for Laney, but her guardian angel was gone. There was nothing to do but step inside. She did, and closed the door.
On a bulletin board over the sink in the corner, someone had pinned one lonesome greeting card. The front had a cartoon watercolor of a doe-eyed child kneeling, hands clasped in prayer. A cartoon Jesus had one palm on the child’s head. The script on the card read, I shall not want.
On the tray cart was an abandoned, crusting cup of Jell-O, a wadded up napkin, and an open Bible.
It would be hard to tell how long she stood there, just watching her mother. Watching her fight for every processed breath of air. Whether it was minutes or hours, she stood there until, finally, something happened. She didn’t know if she’d been waiting for it, or it just worked out that way. At any rate, her mother’s eyes fluttered open and darted around the room.
“Mom,” Andi said. “It’s me.”
The recognition in the older woman’s eyes was clear. The determination, too. Her eyebrows drew together and a stalwart strength Andi recognized gave life to her mother’s face. Thin, gnarled fingers snaked from the covers and clamped around the apparatus over her mouth. She pulled and pulled, contorting her mouth in frustration.
“Mom,” Andi said. Her own voice seemed to come from elsewhere, unreal. “No, Mommy, don’t.”
But her mother’s clawing and pawing grew more frantic. Eventually, she became so distressed that Andi couldn’t bear it. She leaned over and pulled the ventilator mouthpiece off. It hung at her mother’s throat, hissing, moving slightly.
Her mother’s mouth pursed and searched, like a fish on land. “Andrea,” she managed.
One frail arm raised from the bed, fell on Andi’s wrist.
“Do you hear that?” said her mother.
“Hear—what?” Andi leaned in. Listened. She couldn’t hear anything in her suit; it sounded like she was inside her own lungs.
“Do you hear that?” her mother repeated.
Andi heard the ventilator whirring. The EKG beeping. The IV running.
“It’s so loud.” Her mother’s arm slid and fell to dangle off the side of the mattress. “Do you hear it?”
Andi lied. “I hear it, Mom.”
Mom smiled. It could barely hold, the smile, but it was there. Flickering, crumbling, but there for now.
“I knew you would,” she said. “I knew you would, and you’d be here. I knew Jesus would send you to me.” Her mouth contorted into a grim oval as air hissed into her.
Something between a mewl and a purr came out of Andi’s mouth. The noise refrained in the bubble around her head.
Her mother’s trembling arm searched in strain for the gold cross at her clavicle. Grasping it best she could, she moved her mouth again. Andi couldn’t hear her, but she knew what she was saying. What she was asking.
Andi dropped to her knees, like the kid on the Hallmark card. She gripped the handrail of the hospital bed.
That was how Laney found her, when she returned, some time later.
“This is on the house,” Jordan said, handing the wine bottle over the counter to Andi. “I’m told it’s our most expensive bottle. I think it’s the year that makes it so special.” He shrugged one shoulder. “Anyway, people make a big deal about it.”
“Thank you,” said Andi.
“I speak for the entire Inverness when I say how sorry we are,” Jordan continued. He clasped his hands and set them on the counter. “I am absolutely mortified at the behavior of— Well.” He sniffed. “Obviously he was not a well man.”
Andi saw her hand shaking, stuffed it in her pocket. “What’s going to happen to him?” she said.
“You know, I don’t know.” Jordan pushed his sagging mask up his nose. “Once he was out of the hotel, my jurisdiction was at an end.” He started flicking the rubber keys on the ultra-thin keyboard and clicking around. “Obviously we’re refunding the entirety of your stay. And as long as you’re staying here, you’ve been upgraded—naturally. You’ll have everything you need.”
“Upgraded?” Andi turned the wine bottle over in her hand. Again. And again.
“The penthouse is yours,” Jordan said. His eyebrows went up: How ‘bout that?
“The penthouse?” Andi said. “Where he was?”
The clerk held up his hands, as in surrender. “All scrubbed down and sanitized and deloused,” he said. “We’ve burned the bedsheets, I shit you not. I’m personally seeing to it you get everything you need. It’s really beautiful up there. I mean, this room’s two thousand a night.” He exhaled. “You know, before, I mean.”
Andi touched the bandage on the back of her head. “And it’s just me in the hotel now?” she said.
“No one’s checked in.”
“Can I order room service now?”
Jordan reached into his pocket for a pen. “Anything you want,” he said. “Again, on the house.”
“A steak,” said Andi. “Rare, please. And whatever the chef recommends for a side.”
“That’s a good wine for that.” Jordan scribbled.
“And cheesecake,” said Andi. “I read you guys have excellent cheesecake.”
“It’s life-changing,” said Jordan, writing. “Is that all?”
Andi opened her mouth, hesitated.
Jordan leaned in. “Anything else?”
Andi bobbed her head. She couldn’t stop. “Yup,” she said. “Yup, yup. My, ah, my mom passed. Earlier today.”
The concierge dropped his pen. It rolled off the counter and clattered to the marble ground. “Oh,” he said.
“I was there with her,” she said. “So it’s all right. I mean, as far as that goes.”
“Anyway,” Andi said. “I just needed to say that out loud. Thanks for hearing it. Do I have time for a shower before the steak?”
“I’ll tell ‘em to give it a minute.”
“Oh, and here I thought you made the food yourself, too.”
Jordan didn’t laugh or even mug a little—perhaps not hearing her. He pushed through the low swinging door and came around the counter, leading Andi to the elevator. He pressed the Penthouse button for her. She didn’t have to lift a finger. But, she was surprised to see, he slid out of the compartment before the doors could close on him and left her to ride up alone.
It was a long ascent. She watched the numbers light up overhead: 15, 20, 30, 35. The walls of the elevator were mirrors, so she was surrounded by the first good look she’d gotten of herself since the incident the night before.
She was a little proud to see the first black eye she’d ever had. Her lip was split, right up the middle to her septum. At the angle she was standing, she could see in front of her the reflection of her backside; a swath of her hair had been shaved off at the nape of her neck and a big, white patch of bandage was crinkled at the bend of the base of her skull.
The elevator was still moving, rocking gently. The feeling of unseen stories falling beneath her gave her an indescribable vertigo.
She busied herself. Tried to remember lyrics to old songs. Read the wine bottle label, over and over. She held the vessel up, made eye contact with her own reflection.
“To Mom,” she said.
The thought of sitting on the floor and resting her eyes had just flitted across her mind when the elevator lurched and lunged and stopped. The doors dinged open right onto the penthouse, unveiling her digs for the night. An expansive, violet-carpeted, lavishly furnished space unfurled before her. So massive was the penthouse, so full of things to lie or sit on or inspect or treat herself to, that she stood frozen in indecision for a long time.
When she did step off the elevator, she took the two mahogany platform steps into the kitchen first. Opened the wine and drank from the bottle. Granite countertops stretched for yards in either direction. She ran her palm across them as she walked from one end, past a stainless steel fridge and sink, to the other, into the lounge.
She fell into a lush, suede purple sofa. It absorbed her, swallowing her in a plushy caress. A splash of red wine splattered against the cushion and she chuckled.
“My hotel,” she said. The wine she poured generously into her mouth, planning to order another bottle anyway. On the house, naturally. With the bottle half-emptied, an overwhelming curiosity overcame her and drew her from her comfortable repose.
She opened, and left open, every door she passed: a walk-in closet, a marble bathroom with bidet and sauna, a rec room with shuffleboard. Finally she came to the master suite and threw the door open. On the other side all that greeted her was endless darkness, like a black curtain had been hung in the threshold. She stepped in, half-expecting something tangible to block her entry—a blackout curtain, maybe—but it really was that dark. She fumbled for the light switch, doing little swirls with her palm until she found it.
A dim light switched on. The room was an image of luxury, to the point of absurdity. There was the four-poster bed out of a period film. The wardrobe with more silk robes than she could ever get around to wearing. The snack bar with gourmet treats she’d never even heard of. Another closet. Another bathroom.
In spite of all the fancy trimmings, the exorbitant accoutrements, Andi frowned. She took another pull of wine and made a sweep around the bed. The back of her head throbbed; she ran fingers over her bandages.
It was so dim in here. That was it. That’s what made it feel unwelcoming.
She went to the massive windows and heaved the thick designer curtains open with a grunt.
Just a void out the windows. The thought of a citywide blackout crossed her mind. Then she noticed there were no stars, no moon, either. She pressed a hand to the glass. Then her forehead. These were blackout windows. Nothing got in or out.
With her entire field of vision occupied by the blotted-out world beyond, she closed her eyes. Opened them. Closed them. Opened. There was no way to tell the difference.
It would be easy to get lost in the darkness.
A harsh buzzing jolted her from the black trance. Insectoid but unnaturally loud, it sounded off and on, with increasing urgency and pushiness. She followed the source out the room and down the hall to a tiny square panel on hinges. Screwed into the wall above it was a small bell. It vibrated off and on, making the buzz.
Andi took another chug of wine. The little door slid open willingly. Behind it was more utter blackness. It could have been solid. She stared at her own palm for a few seconds before sticking it through the opening with a wince.
Her fingers found something wet. Spongy. She yelped and drew her hand back. Red speckles dotted her fingernails.
Staggering back, she gasped for air. It wouldn’t come. Her lungs would not fill. Was there air in here at all? Just how far up had the elevator taken her?
She stumbled forward, face-first into the opening in the wall. Suddenly—ropes, a tray, a plate came into sharp focus.
She laughed. A dumbwaiter. Sure. Dinner was served.
Andi ate standing up. The steak was excellent and the cheesecake the best she’d ever had. It felt like a reward. She took a shower, dried off, and coated herself in lotion that she knew cost more than her car payment. Back in the master suite she picked out a snack that looked the most expensive and took one of her gummies before plopping into bed. Without a book, or any TV, no music or podcast, she lay there snacking and gingerly trying to find a comfortable place to rest her tender head.
Rain started to fall outside, and though she couldn’t see it, she could hear its gentle patter. The heat kicked on, filled the room with an almost palpable layer of warmth. Her eyelids began to droop. A softness enveloped her from within.
She fell asleep.
It could have been minutes or hours later when the knocking woke her up. Disoriented, half-awake, she mumbled and squinted. Right above her head—an urgent rapping, like someone at the front door with bad news. Only it was in the wall, or the ceiling.
She sat up. Opened her eyes.
Something was in the room. A person—or maybe not. A thing, with arms and legs like a person’s, stood at the foot of her bed, emanating a soft red haze. Its face—human in that it had eyes and a nose and a mouth, moved independently of the head. Its features pivoted and shifted without the slightest movement of the neck.
Andi imagined herself springing up, out of the bed, crawling out the window, anything to get away. She couldn’t. Her arms and legs were locked, her jaw set.
The thing sprouted facial hair then shed it, in seconds. It smiled down at her, growing and losing teeth like rose petals. It lifted a red arm—
Andi blinked twice, caught her breath. It was gone. The red overcast, gone. Average, plain, lights-out darkness filled the room once more.
Movement returned to her. Her fist went slowly to her heart. She massaged her chest, as if that would slow her pulse. It didn’t, but the firmness of her knuckles on her sternum brought her back to reality. Lucidity. But she didn’t want lucidity. Concrete thought didn’t make sleep. She wanted sleep. Folding into herself, she lay back down and pulled the blanket over her head.
Did her breathing exercises.
Ten seconds in, ten seconds out. Ten seconds in.
Behind her, a tremendous thrust of noise. The headboard bowed and popped back into place. Andi’s legs seized. She winced, heart racing. Looked around.
She put her hand to the wall. Her ear. Not a sound.
Old pipes. Old ductwork. Old hotel. The old pipes in the old hotel interrupted a deep sleep and ruined the whole damn night in the stupid damn old hotel.
She rolled onto her side. Waking thoughts battled dream logic. She was fading, and—
It was as if a bull had charged the wall behind her head. Andi lurched forward, gasping. She sat up. Pounded on the wall and sat, drawing her legs in on the mattress. She waited in silence, breath suspended.
Do you hear that?
She groaned in tantrum. Of course there’d be construction, or a raccoon in the vents, or some bullshit going on the one time in her life she’d ever get to sleep in a penthouse suite. Of course it would be tonight.
It occurred to her to call the front desk. Ask for another, simpler room. She dialed for Jordan and let it ring. And ring. Again he wasn’t answering. So she sat like that, listening. Waiting, until her shoulders began to sag. The receiver plopped onto the empty pillow next to her. Her chin drooped, meeting her chest as her eyes closed. And she sank, falling into bedding, until—
Startled awake, she twirled and tangled in the sheets. Something. Definitely. In the walls. It pounded and slammed. It made progressing, eruptive circles around her. The headboard rattled. BUHWHUMP.
Faint shadows from the soft light fixture glitched. Tufts of drywall dust danced in descent around the room. WHUMP. WHUMP. BWHUMP.
Do you hear that? It’s so loud.
Andi wrestled her way out of the linens and stumbled into the hallway. The percussive slamming behind the walls seemed to react, to know; it followed her toward the entrance. The thumping careened up and across, sucking volume from the very atmosphere and setting framed art askew.
Going to the window, she reached out. Thrusting past satin curtains she threw it open. Leaning out up to her shoulders, she listened. Nothing on the roof, the street. It wasn’t coming from outside.
There was a jarring crash from behind: the television, knocked over onto its face. She drew back in just in time to see the couch buck an inch off the ground.
WHUMP. BA-BUM. BA-BUM.
“Okay,” she said. Launching into a trot: “Enough. Enough, no.”
She tripped over the steps at the cusp of the penthouse proper and crawled the rest of the way to the elevator. She jabbed at the call button with an unsteady finger. The booming gained momentum, speed; it spread from one wandering focal point to surround her, to fill the room. Still punching the button, she looked over her shoulder. The walls themselves contracted, expanded. Like lungs. Like final, failing breaths.
Overhead, the ceiling compressed. Right over Andi, it began to sag. To shudder. With every resounding boom it sank a bit more.
WHUMP. WHUMP. WHUMWHUMWHUMWHUM.
Then—through the explosive discord and her own beating heart she heard something new. The phone was ringing. Such a simple thing, such a small thing in all this noise and violence.
Crouched, she made her way toward the phone in the kitchen. Snatched it off the hook and answered.
“Well,” Jordan’s voice answered, “you called. I’m guessing that can mean only one thing. I’m guessing you’ve heard it.”
“What the hell is it?” she asked.
“What else?” His voice was low and distant, crackling. “The voice of God.”
“What?” Andi pulled the phone a few inches from her ear.
“I hoped you wouldn’t have to hear it. But you will hear it,” Jordan said, “all over the place. Once you’ve heard it, you realize it’s everywhere. It’s been everywhere. You just didn’t notice. And anyone you get too close to, they’ll hear it, too. Just when you think you’ve found some peace and quiet, just when you think you’re finally gonna get some rest—”
“J-Jordan,” Andi said, steadying her voice. “I would like to check out.”
“Mr. Anderson thought it was you this whole time.” The clerk laughed. “All that noise. He insisted. If I didn’t give you a scolding for all your racket, he’d ‘sue the hotel.’ He thought you were a monster, Andrea. But I think he’s the one who gave it to you. In the stairwell.”
“Anyway,” the voice on the phone became clearer. “I found out I can make it shut up, for a night or two. I took the liberty again tonight. Some peace and quiet’s on the way.”
He hung up.
Andi stood there, cupping the phone in one hand and the curve of her cranium in the other. Breathing fast. The ceiling make a loud snap as the drywall cracked. A clipping knock ran up the floor to her feet, thumping against her.
She dropped the phone.
And—ding. The elevator opened.
Andi spun around, confused, having forgotten she’d called it up. Barely remembering what an elevator was. The parting doors landed in the center of her focus. Spreading in invitation.
The doors stuck, grinding in a half-finished grin.
Something was caught in them. Thick metal gnashed at the obstruction like teeth chewing gum.
Andi took a step forward and felt something brush her foot.
Her eyes followed its trajectory: a beat-up old fedora hat, rolling into the suite foyer from the inside of the elevator compartment.
It rolled on its brim in an endless twirl, never settling.
Andi backed away from the elevator. Another tremendous wallop overhead—FWHUMPH—and the doors coughed open. Something large and heavy tumbled out. Not an inch from where her toes had just been, the weathered and contorted face of Mr. Anderson, the penthouse’s former occupant, stared lifeless up at her.
The windows bowed in, crackling. Andi tumbled onto, then over, the couch. On her hands and knees she looked around it.
Peeking through her fingers, she could see the dead man’s hand was clamped in a leather-bound Gideon Bible. Gilded pages sealed tight over his fingers, like a trap.
The body jerked stiffly with the next rat-a-tat round of bumps to the floor and walls. At Andi’s back and legs the furniture bucked and churned. Standing, trembling, and cursing, she went to the open window again and looked down.
There was the fire escape.
Dozens of stories of wrought iron, flimsy steps to the street below.
A way out.
Nodding, knocking on her sternum with a fist, she put one leg over the windowsill. Ducked her head through. She stepped onto grated metal and looked down, breathless.
A way out.
The night air was damp and biting. Hugging herself, she shuffled forward a foot. She was still nodding.
Without a tear in her eye, and not a single whimper, she began her descent.
The nearest Airbnb was sixty miles out of town. It was in the suburbs, a three-bedroom house with a fenced-in gate and a welcome note taped to the door. She peeled it off and punched in the security code she’d been texted, sort of swaying on the porch without any luggage and still in her PJs.
An ancient wisp of a man was still inside when she nearly collapsed in the door. He was bleaching down the countertops.
“One second and I’ll be out of your hair.”
“You’re fine,” she said. “I appreciate it.”
“You’re Andrea?” he said, dripping rag in hand.
“Strange night you’ve had,” the old man said. “My wife told me.”
“Oh.” Andi made a sort of show out of her adoring reaction. “Sandy. She’s so sweet. Opening this place up at the crack of dawn for me.”
Forgetting the task at hand, forgetting his lack of mask, the scoliosis-ridden man hobbled in his silk robe very near to Andi. “You should really sue that place, if you don’t mind my sayin’.”
“We’ll see,” she said, backing away—politely.
“You could use a good night’s sleep, I’m sure.” Little droplets of pungent ammonia solution pattered onto the linoleum.
“That’s the plan.”
“Master bed’s back that way,” he said, without pointing. “I’m about done here. You go on and rest, sweetheart.”
Giving him one thankful nod, Andi clambered down a hallway lined with family portraits of strangers. The master bedroom was at the far end.
Face-first she fell into the Queen. After kicking off her shoes and throwing her face covering across the room, she rolled over and inhaled Tide, to her nostalgic relief. In the midst of the longest sigh of her life, she noticed a dampness on her cheek. Glancing to the side she saw a maroon streak on the white pillowcase. Searching fingers found the corners of her eyes and pinched, pulling slickness over the bridge of her nose.
In her eye.
She daubed it with a tissue from the nightstand and rested her head again. In a minute she would be asleep. She could feel it. From head to toe she was more weary than she’d ever felt. Anything more than a blink and she’d be gone.
Lying there, Andi listened. There was the shuffling of feet, back in the foyer. The croaking wail of an opening and gently closing door. The man gone, leaving her alone in a quiet neighborhood, in an empty house. She could have heard a pin drop. She could have heard—
In the corner of her eye—a flicker, a minuscule blur. She lolled her head on the pillow and saw a hornet, banging into the corner, for all the world as though there were some escape there. Like there was a way out.
“Shut up,” she mumbled.
The piddly collisions of this tiny creature into the wall struck her as thunder, as a jackhammer’s prattle. She groaned and swore and sat up to glare at the insect.
“Okay,” she said. She pulled open a drawer on the nightstand.
Nestled deep into the drawer was a cheap, disposable bible. The kind handed out door-to-door by kids in white polos.
“Okay,” she said.
She grabbed the book and stood on the bed, her bare feet sinking into mattress like quicksand. Drawing her knees in, she stuck out her tongue and leapt, striking up at the corner of the ceiling with the King James.
The hornet fell like a tossed coin onto the mattress. It lay there, one wing still flitting—not realizing it was supposed to be dead.
Andi watched it for a few seconds. Then, with great care, she set the book on her lap and opened it around the middle. With either thumbnail she pinched the tiny, dying creature and dropped it into the binding of the holy text. She slammed it shut and set it on the end table, next to the alarm clock.
She lay back down.
Closed her eyes.
And waited for sleep.
Trying not to cry.
Trying not to laugh.