It’s snowing when I wake up. Soundless thick white flakes tumble past the hotel room window, lulling me into a false sense of coziness in this sterile room. Beige walls, a tightly made queen size bed, a white-tiled bathroom: I don’t usually stay in hotels this nice. Motel rooms with cigarette burns in the carpet and 3 a.m. fights in the parking lot are more my speed. At least since my wife Kristen kicked me out.
I’ve been in this hotel for three days and I still don’t know why.
But breakfast is killer here, omelets with hollandaise sauce, ham, rich coffee, potatoes, so I pull on my pants and a shirt and head down to the dining room. There’s no need to wet down my rumpled hair or try to look presentable. We all know each other pretty well after three days and we have bigger concerns than how we look.
A chalkboard is propped on an easel in the lobby. Someone has written on it in an elegant hand: ‘Are we dead?’ Discussion tonight at 7 in the ballroom.
I laugh because it’s obvious Sharon wrote it, the most driven and organized and controlling of anyone here. If I was an asshole, I would write under it, ‘yes, of course we’re fucking dead’ but I don’t want to ruin her project. Sharon’s the type to need a project. And I can smell sausage and coffee.
But first, Alice and Denny. They’re sitting on tan couches by the potted trees with disgruntled faces. Maybe they’re fighting. They got together our first night here. Out of the six people at the hotel, they feel the most like friends.
“What’s wrong?” I ask. “Sharon yell at you again?”
“No, well, kind of,” Denny says. “She told us today we had to move down to the first or second floor because if the elevators get stuck, there isn’t anyone to get us out.”
It’s a logical point, like most of Sharon’s ideas, but her sharp and condescending delivery probably put them off.
“It’s Bonnie,” Alice says, pronouncing her name with disdain. “She tried to kick us out of the kitchen like it’s her hotel.”
Bonnie is the youngest one here, in her early twenties, with a personality that’s defiant and needy at the same time. She seems to have a thing for me, though I’ve told everyone I’m married.
“She’s been cooking some great stuff.”
“She hasn’t cooked anything,” Denny says. “We looked in the kitchen – everything was crazy clean. All the meals came from someone else.”
My stomach growls. “So maybe today we’ll find out who. Look, I’m hungry.”
They follow me into the dining room, which is carpeted in a pale olive green, yellow and pink pattern. About sixty white-clothed tables fill the center of the room, with olive green upholstered booths lining the walls. Just like at every meal, a buffet of silver canisters are heaped with food.
We join the others at the big circular table in the center, stabbing at our sausage, ham and potatoes. Alice just gets a slice of melon with black coffee – I want to tell her that she doesn’t need to watch her weight here because we’re obviously dead – and Samil eats his pancakes with voracious speed, as if this is all going to disappear at any second. Bonnie’s eating pancakes too, no worries about reducing her ample figure. Linton, the smartest and most reserved of any of us, is barely touching his eggs, tapping his knife against the table and watching the snow fall. His rectangular frizz of hair gives his head the look of a fuzzy robot.
“So I think you’d better tell them, Bonnie,” Alice comes out with eventually.
Bonnie pours more syrup over her pancakes.
“Tell us what?” Samil puts down his fork. “Now what happened?”
“Bonnie hasn’t been cooking all this food like she said,” Alice announces. “It’s just magically here.”
“I have been cooking,” Bonnie says. “But all the food kept showing up so I just cooked for myself.”
“And there’s the proof,” Alice says, dropping her fork. “We’re in purgatory.” She blinks fast several times in a row like she’s going to start crying.
“Speak for yourselves,” Samil says amiably, biting into a muffin. “My afterlife doesn’t take place at a Hilton.”
“And my afterlife doesn’t have a bunch of strangers in it,” Denny says. “Come on, Al. You’re alive. I’m alive. If this was death, our dead relatives would be here to greet us.”
I eat my sausage. Here’s what I don’t want to happen: for everyone to revive Bonnie’s earlier suggestion that we share personal details like jobs and habits and family members to figure out if we’re connected in some way. We did this the first day in a very basic way and I said I was married, had an older brother Kevin and a little niece, used to work in a canning factory. Mostly everyone had focused on the weird mystery of us all waking up here in separate rooms in an abandoned hotel. When we each traced our last steps, I said I was taking my niece to the park, rather than the truth which was waiting in my apartment for my dealer to come over. No one loves a junkie. And I’m clean as a whistle here anyhow so it doesn’t matter.
Bonnie sniffles. “Hey,” Samil says to her, clumsily patting her hand. “It’s going to be okay.”
“It’s just – ” and the tears come, not a hot flow, just a few. She sniffles a wet clotty sniffle that makes me stop eating. “Everyone here is so glib about it. You shouldn’t talk about being dead that way. It’s death you’re talking about.”
“We’re all going to die one day,” Alice says flatly.
“That’s just academic for most people. I watched my father die of pancreatic cancer. My neighbor died – the smell filled the entire hall. You guys sit around and joke –”
“They’re just trying to lighten the mood,” Samil says. “We’re not dead. Someone’s going to come and explain everything.” He’s been saying that for the last three days but his voice gets duller each time. Samil is the ultimate office guy, a perennial optimist in a button-down shirt.
“I’m an atheist, so it would be pretty weird if I wound up in Christian purgatory,” Linton says.
“But point taken, Bonnie.”
Sharon strides through the dining hall in a linen suit, her bobbed silver hair immaculate. “I scheduled this discussion for tonight,” she says coldly. “Can we just concentrate on our breakfast please?”
Everyone is sufficiently cowed to resume eating. Except Linton, who stares bemusedly out the enormous dining room windows, merely a swirl of white, and says, “I think we should search the rooms again after we eat. Just once more, just to be sure no one else is hiding in here.”
Everyone agrees. It’s something to do at least.
We’ve had this discussion at least seven times over the last three days. Linton has the most palatable theory: we’re in a government experiment. With so many environmental problems coming, the government is testing how long people can be holed up together like this without going crazy. I like that idea. I just don’t think it’s correct.
After breakfast, we split up and wander around the hotel. I volunteer to canvass the first floor, because I’m a lazy bastard at heart, while the rest of them divide up the one hundred and twelve rooms on the four floors above. We did this before, checking under beds and behind shower curtains, but we didn’t find the masterminds behind this whole affair. We didn’t find anything.
I look behind the lobby’s polished blond wood counter, then go into the restrooms. Then into the back hall and the darkened staff offices that have desks but no chairs. Vending machines glow in hallway alcoves; I pop out a cold can of soda without inserting any money. The ice machine rumbles. I head into my favorite room in the hotel – the shadowy ballroom, full of dozens of chairs on a patterned carpet, all facing a podium and microphone.
Not a shadowy government operative or celestial angel in sight. Just doors and exits barricaded shut by snowdrifts.
Back in the lobby, I rest my forehead against the cold glass doors and try to see the parking lot through the snow. It’s odd to feel so calm. Odd to feel freed from the restlessness. My sponsor, Wade, described it as the endless itch. In three days, I haven’t wished for a needle once. If that isn’t proof of an afterlife, what is?
Then again. I scratch my forearm, step on my left big toe. The welt rises to life, the toe cries in pain. I’m undeniably corporeal. And as Denny pointed out, most everyone here is too young to die. He’s my age, Alice a little younger. As the oldest, Sharon can’t be more than fifty-eight or fifty-nine. Samil’s in his forties, Linton is maybe in his mid-thirties. Bonnie’s twenty-three, at the most. I’m in the middle at thirty-two, though I’m probably the most likely candidate for an early death here, not that anyone can tell by looking at me.
The snowflakes swirl down. I try to imagine I see a dark shape out there: a vehicle, a person. If someone came and beckoned to me, a traveler, an official, who selected only me for rescue, would I go? Or would I wait and insist on including the others?
I would go. I would.
“Hi,” says Bonnie, coming off the elevator. Apparently she hasn’t heard Sharon’s dictum on avoiding the elevators. “I didn’t find anything on the first floor.”
“It’s kind of useless, no offense. It’s not like someone couldn’t outwit us. There are too many rooms and not enough us.”
She looks out at the blizzard. “It’s hypnotic, isn’t it?”
“That’s the word for it.” Bonnie has an excellent vocabulary. Linton has an off-kilter genius, but Bonnie’s the most strategically smart one here.
“I didn’t mean to be so weird about the death thing earlier,” she said. “I just think people need to respect it more.”
“But why?” I said. “Are we being respected? Let’s say we all just got smashed to death in some multi-car pileup on the highway. And for whatever reason, our souls migrated here. Why isn’t death respecting us and treating us with some basic courtesy, like an explanation?”
She looks at me tenderly and I get that feeling again that Bonnie may have something of a crush on me. Which, smart though she may be, is never going to be reciprocated. I step back. “I just wish I could call my wife,” I say, followed by a long casual yawn.
Mission accomplished: Bonnie looks crestfallen. It’s not a lie. I do wish I could speak to Kristen, even though she stopped taking my calls over a year ago. But thinking about that makes me want to be alone with my thoughts. “I’m going to go lay down for a while,” I say, and take the stairs to room 139.
I like my hotel room. Sitting on the bed, watching the snow fall, it’s a numbing kind of peace. Heroin is often phrased in warm terms, like glow and euphoria and golden. But the best dope opens a door to cool tranquility, pure and isolating as a snow-blanketed forest.
Then it hits me: this is a fancy rehab. Everyone here is an addict – even uptight executive Sharon, even Samil with his methodical donkey voice and button-down shirts – and we’ve all been locked up here in some kind of experimental treatment. My sponsor, Wade, went through some radical sanitarium treatments before he got clean in 1971, like aversion therapy and even a few doses of LSD. That has to be it.
But no. The first two rules of any detox are tyrannical staff and constant supervision. When my ex-girlfriend Wendy visited me – not a romantic visit, we had used together after Kristen kicked me out, she had stolen my dope, then gotten clean and now wanted to make amends as advised by her sponsor – the staff supervised us in the courtyard to make sure we didn’t have “inappropriate physical contact.”
And nothing is peaceful in detox. The angst of deprivation runs like an electric current through the hallway of white rooms, the board games in the visitor lounge, the cloud of cigarette smoke in the courtyard. The line of patients waiting for their paper cup of magic pills, food clotted in their unbrushed teeth. They were the best part of detox: the shaking, drooling scarecrows who inevitably provided the best proof that I could keep going. “I bet that makes you think twice,” one of the nurses barked once and I said, “Are you kidding? They make me feel so much better about myself.” I could say things like that once I figured out that my family didn’t have the power to “commit” me – that per the inexorable laws of insurance and state, I would be released within a few days.
There isn’t anything I need here. No sex. No conversation. No family. After Kristen kicked me out, everyone thought I’d be forced to choose the things that mattered – Sunday dinner at my parents’, the French toast Kristen made me every weekend, watching my niece Daphne draw chalk dinosaurs on the driveway on summer evenings – but I just learned to live without them.
All I need now is the snow to keep falling, soundlessly burying the hotel. Staring at the ceiling, I can feel something coming back to me – it covers my brain like black water, cold and seeping. I’m remembering something. When I walk out of here, they’re all going to be gone. I’m going to be alone. They don’t really exist. I sit up and look at the door.
A strong knock raps out a rhythm. “Hey!” It’s Samil. “There’s a movie playing in the ballroom – you want to come down?”
“Yeah,” I answer a little too eagerly and he looks at me oddly when I emerge, like maybe he thinks I was shooting up in there, but no, no one thinks that about me here. No one knows that about me. I’m someone new here.
There are thirty or so rows of empty chairs before I see their heads outlined against the screen. The movie is an old black and white one.
“It just started playing,” Samil says as we walk up to the front. “The projector was set up and everything.”
“A movie within a movie,” Linton says when I take the chair next to him. “Our host is going to walk out at the end like Vincent Price and reveal this is a crazy billionaire’s game.”
The movie is the first entertainment we’ve had in the last three days so I try to get interested in it. But after listening to two characters talk about insurance, I get bored. “I’m going to make sure no one’s out there trying to do something while we’re distracted,” I say to Linton.
A soft growl rises up from my stomach. I go into the enormous stainless steel kitchen and of course Bonnie is already in the huge refrigerated pantry, digging through shelves of fresh food.
“Peaches,” she says. “Pork chops. Milk. Avocadoes. Whipped cream. How is it getting in here?”
“The same way the projector got set up,” Linton says, coming in. Apparently the movie’s message, if one was intended, failed to interest several of us.
“Obviously no one came. So there’s your answer,” I say.
Sharon strides in with a tight mouth. “Would you people stop? We’ll talk about it tonight.”
“Sharon, you’re obviously a natural leader in the real world,” Linton says. “But this is a strange situation and everything in it is out of your control.”
Sharon’s heels slap the linoleum on her way out. “She’s going to be the first to crack,” Bonnie predicts, putting broccoli on the stainless steel counter. I wonder about the ordering implicit in that sentence. If Sharon is the first to crack, there will be a second, right? And a last?
Denny and Alice come in. “We’re starving. No dinner yet?”
“I think we’re supposed to feed ourselves tonight,” Bonnie says. “I’ll cook.”
It goes fairly well, Bonnie and Linton prepping and chopping and Alice baking an apple pie to go with the whipped cream. I watch from the table, wondering what my life could be like if I was a photographer or played bass or had some kind of passion that absorbed my time and energy. My boss Paula had tried to help me find a vocation; she had gone to bat for me to keep my job when I nodded off in the men’s room and a janitor found me, and she had even paid for me to go to a career counselor where they tested you for professional aptitudes. ‘You’re too smart and I think that’s part of the problem,’ she’d said. It was the “passionate genius” theory of addiction; bright people who shot up to deaden the pain of their intelligence. Oh Paula, I wanted to say to her, I’ve already found what I love. But I never said that, because she was one of the few people I hated to let down.
“I suppose we can get started,” Sharon says querulously that night in the dining room. “Now that we’re done eating.”
There’s a pause. Maybe we’re surprised that she’s starting the discussion while dirty plates are still on the tablecloth.
“I’ll go,” Alice says, fidgeting in her seat. “I think it’s terrorism. I think we were kidnapped, maybe given some kind of memory-altering drug -”
“Terrorism?” I ask. “What terrorists?”
“I’m sticking with my government theory,” Linton said. “The Tuskegee experiment. Human radiation tests. The Manhattan Project. There’s a reason there aren’t any computers or phones here. They don’t want us doing research.”
“Good, Linton, let’s all take an evidence-based approach,” Sharon says. “When you share your theory, say why.”
“I have something to say first that’s pretty crazy,” Alice says. She pauses. “I’m 67.”
Alice’s face is clearly that of someone in her late twenties. But a few others look down and
Sharon sighs before saying, “I’m 79.”
“61,” Denny says. He and Alice aren’t looking at each other.
“39,” says Bonnie.
“81,” says Samil.
Linton and I look at each other. “I’m 32,” I say.
Linton says he’s 43, just eight or nine years older than I’d have pegged him. We’re the right ages, they’re not. But the proof is still pretty compelling; this is the afterlife.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” Bonnie says in a tiny voice after a long silence.
Linton jumps to life. “And there’s not a damn thing we can do about it,” he says. “So let’s eat some pie.”
Bonnie cuts up seven slices, spoons out whipped cream, and we take our plates out to the lobby.
Through the glass, we can see more snow coming down against the black sky. How is that possible? It hasn’t stopped for days, yet the drifts haven’t quite covered the hotel yet. “It just keeps coming,” Bonnie says, looking up.
“Holy shit,” Denny says from the reception desk. “There’s a record player here. And albums.”
“Albums?” Alice, Samil, even Sharon appear stunned by this. Everyone drifts over to the desk.
“Actual records,” Alice says. “And a turntable.”
Denny holds up LP covers. Alice Cooper. Steppenwolf. New York Dolls. KISS. People shake their heads until he gets to a Van Morrison album.
The needle hits the record and music emerges from the crappy turntable speakers. “It sound so scratchy and warbly,” Alice says but everyone shushes her and we sit on the tan lobby sofas listening to the songs. There’s no need for talking. We know everything we’re going to. When that side of the album ends, we put on the Velvet Underground. I like this album. I have this album. It was one of the few bands I got Kristen to like.
Everyone is looking familiar in the lobby lights. These aren’t the worse people to be snowed in with. This isn’t going to be so bad, until it gets resolved. Oddly, looking at them, my heart seems to well over with love, a love I’ve never felt before, and all I know is that in this empty hotel and endless blizzard, I am starting to feel like I’m home.
The last song on the album ends. The needle scratches, bumps until Denny shuts off the turntable. We smile at each other and go up to bed.
The next morning I awaken to pure silence.
I go into the carpeted corridor and listen for the distant hum of some kind of life, breakfast, Sharon’s dictatorial voice. But downstairs the lobby is empty. The dining room is empty too. No buffet.
I run back up to the first floor. “Hey!” I yell down the corridor. “Sharon! Samil! Denny!”
The hotel is empty. They’re gone. Back in the lobby, I listen to the silence.
Then a smooth rumble fills the hotel. The elevator is descending. It’s them, I tell myself, they were just up on the top floor for some reason, maybe the mastermind behind this whole thing has shown up to gloat over our distress. But my stomach is tight with anxiety.
The elevator reaches the lobby with a soft ping. The doors slide open to reveal an empty elevator, golden fabric walls segmented with metal strips.
I don’t move. The doors stay open. Eight minutes pass. Twelve minutes. Finally, I step inside. There’s an extra glowing button today: a fifth floor.
I push it and the elevator begins to ascend. It passes the first floor, the second. My nerves jangle.
It passes the third and I begin to sweat. My stomach is cramping. It reaches 5 with a soft ping and the doors slide open to a warm wave of putrefaction so strong that I bend over and retch.
It’s my studio apartment. The shades are pulled and I can just make out the rumpled bed, the mess of clothes and the crate of albums on the floor, the bag of dope on the nightstand.
A foot emerges from the other side of the bed. It’s a mottled darkish green, or maybe darkish blue. I pull my t-shirt up over my nose and walk into my apartment. Rounding the bed I see what I’ve seen so many times before – my discolored corpse, mouth open, hands raised up and curled like claws, eyes half open and looking not like eyeballs so much as gray jelly.
I pound back into the elevator before the doors can shut. But they’ve never shut yet, because this has happened before. I remember now. As the elevator descends back into the hotel, I remember everything.
My mother was here. Controlling and efficient as ever, trying to boss everyone around. My best friend and his girlfriend, who thought I was a bad influence on him. I remembered them visiting me in detox, Denny awkwardly holding out a magazine he thought I’d like, Alice judgmentally silent. Samil, my most annoying coworker, who complained about my absences to Paula’s boss and I retaliated by blaming him for a missing coffeemaker.
They were all here. I missed the chance to apologize, explain, again.
The elevator opens into the lobby. It’s always like this. I never recognize or appreciate them in time, they never remember me or each other. There are always limited facts, limited recall, until they vanish.
I go into the ballroom, which looks clean and corporate in the blizzardy daylight, but I see it as it was the night of my wedding reception, strung with golden lights. Room 139, where we spent our wedding night.
“It’s enough!” I yell into the hotel. “I get it, okay? I fucking get it.”
It’s waiting for me in the dining room like always: a glass of green liquid sitting on the first table. Once I drink it, I’ll forget everything again, the next group arrives and we wake up baffled and it starts over. But I’m not going to drink it this time. I’m going to stick it out, spend the days alone in the hotel. That has to be the point of this otherwise pointless purgatory – to tough it out, choose truth over comfort.
I look at the large round table. My mother was sitting there yesterday and I barely acknowledged her. Another chance lost for apologies, reconciliations. All the nights I let Bonnie come over and sleep with me, and the long talks we had because she was so very smart, but I would never be seen in public with her because I didn’t want my friends to think I was sleeping with a chubby girl. I wonder why she died so young at 39. I wonder what Linton, my college weed dealer, ended up doing for a living. Why he died at 43.
“It doesn’t matter,” I say to the hotel. “They’re not real anyway.” It would be egocentric to have their afterlife revolve around mine. They’re just characters. Yet even though they appeared at their ages at my death, they knew their real, final ages.
Odd how the hotel played Kristen’s favorite movie this time. When we were first dating, she took me to see ‘Double Indemnity’ in a revival theatre but I nodded off out of boredom. After she left me, I always tried to remember the name of it so I could watch it and feel closer to her.
“If you play it again,” I tell the hotel, “I will watch it. I’ll be less restless. I’ll remember. I’ll pay attention. I’ll understand this time.”
The snow keeps falling in gentle silence.
I wake up slowly, in pure contentment. It’s a winter morning and the blanket and sheets are tight around my legs.
I’m in a hotel room. A nice one. Sitting up, I can’t imagine who could have put me here or where I was last night.
Voices in the hall get me out of bed. A skinny woman with long dark hair, pretty except for her acne scars, is talking to a burly older guy outside my room. “Oh,” she says as I shut the door behind me. “We got another one.”
“And now we are six,” says the older man. He extends a hand. “Wade. We’re just trying to figure out what’s going on. You been here long?”
I shake my head. “Just woke up. How did I get here?”
“How did any of us get here?” says the brunette. “We all just woke up here. I don’t even have my purse or my phone. I’m Wendy, by the way.”
“There’s a little girl too,” the older man says. “Kind of looks like you. Wouldn’t be yours, would she?”
“I don’t have kids.”
“Ah, here’s Paula.”
A hefty blond in a sweater comes out of the stairwell, frowning. A kid who’s about six or seven is behind her, dark hair, blue eyes. “Daphne’s dad is here too,” she says. “Kevin, same story as us. Oh and there’s breakfast waiting in the dining room. So someone’s here somewhere. I’m sure we can find them and get this straightened out.”
The kid looks dubious. “Is my mom here?”
“It’s going to be okay,” Paula says, patting her back. “Come on. Let’s go eat and then we’ll find your mom.”
But we don’t find her mother after we eat. We don’t find anyone, not in the gloomy empty ballroom or the dark offices or the big metal doors that Wade says probably lead to the loading dock. All of the doors are blocked by enormous snow drifts.
They go upstairs as a group to search the rooms. I stay in the lobby in case anyone comes.
The cold and shadowy hotel looms over me. How did I get here? I try to remember.
But the memory that arises is from a few years ago. I’m at my parents’ house for Sunday dinner. I’ve been clean for a few months this time and I’m just starting to get invited to things again. My mother is in the kitchen, making biscuits and gravy, correcting my aunt on silverware placement as she sets the table. I’m sprawled on the living room carpet in a beam of sunlight, listening to an album and watching my cousin’s baby crawl across the floor. It’s four years ago, 1977, but my family’s voices in the kitchen and the smell of ham and biscuits are as vivid as if it were yesterday. My cousin anxiously glances in on me because she doesn’t quite trust me yet. She puts the baby in his playpen. The voices and the smell of dinner blur together in a warm miasma of family but I don’t go in and join them. Instead I lay on the carpet and listen to the song finish, and then lift the needle and start it again.
BIO: Valerie Alexander lives in Phoenix and L.A. Her work has been published in a variety of anthologies and magazines.