The hotel desk clerk’s baggy eyes widened at the mere mention of the number. “732? You don’t want that room.”
Every year the same thing, a different clerk with the same questions. Ordinarily I endured the interminable excuses but this year’s pilgrimage had been particularly unpleasant. The car had coughed, sputtered and threatened to die at every rest stop; the clouds had been bloated and full of rain.
Rainy days were always the hardest.
So, I nipped the discussion in the bud. With an offhand gesture I tossed a wad of bills on the counter and spoke again, “Room 732 please.”
“You don’t- ”
“Give me room 732 for the night, and you can keep the change.”
The expression on the desk clerk’s face was almost comical, he swept the bills out of sight and slipped me the key. Turning away from the counter I headed down the familiar maze of hallways. The desk clerk’s unspoken questions burned at my back, Why that room? Haven’t you heard the stories? Aren’t you afraid?
I made sure I was out of sight before he decided to ask any of them.
When I had first come here-
No, not I. We.
When we had first come here, this was a four star establishment, with brightly lit hallways, working elevators, even room service. The elevator had stopped working three years ago, and when the bulbs in the hallways burnt out no one bothered to replace them. I pushed the door to the stairwell open; figures crouched in the murk, grunting half-heartedly. Bypassing them I headed up the stairs, debris crunching underfoot.
I was out of breath by the time I reached the seventh floor, no surprise there really. I’m not a young man anymore. Sometimes I wondered to myself why the hotel had fallen out of favor so quickly. It couldn’t just be the fact that someone had died here, after all, people died in their hotel rooms all the time. Maybe it was the way she died, maybe the horror of her final moments was so profound that it permeated every floor and hallway. Maybe the slumbering business travelers and vacationing families would wake at exactly 1:49 AM, their hearts beating wildly and their sheets drenched with sweat. Maybe it was nothing more than new, more conveniently located-off ramp that cut this whole section of the city out of the tourist trade.
The sound of the seventh floor stairwell opening was high and shrill like a woman’s scream. Frowning, I trudged down the hallway, listening to the pat-pat-patter of the leaky ceiling. I found the familiar suite and slipped the key into the lock. The door resisted for a heartbeat then swung open. For a moment I stood there staring into the shadowed, empty room, torn between the instinct to run and the vows I had made. This, like the bickering with the desk clerk, is a ritual for me.
The lights stayed off, I knew the geography here all too well. Closing the door behind me, I crossed the room and sat on the musty bed. It was funny in a way, after almost a decade I still trembled at this moment. For a time I stared into the gloom, watching the darkness churn, then I closed my eyes and replayed visions of broken locks, police tape and dried blood over and over in my mind.
A shudder worked its way up my spine. I could almost imagine her kneeling on the bed behind me, her slender arms wrapping around my back.
“I miss you.” My voice was reverent, uncertain, of all the rituals I observed on this terrible anniversary this was the most important, “I wish I had come back sooner. I wish I had been here. I wish-.”
From out of the darkness her voice is at my ear, “I know.”