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art by Alan Bao

The Girl in the Next Room is Crying Again

Peter M. Ball is a writer from Brisbane, Australia. His work include the faerie-noir novellas Horn and Bleed from Twelfth Planet Press, and his short fiction has appeared in publications such as Fantasy, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, Interfictions II, Eclipse 4, and Daily Science Fiction. He can be found online at www.petermball.com. This is Peter M. Ball's third appearance in Daily Science Fiction.
It's Morley's hotel. I didn't know that when I checked in, when I told the night clerk my name was Mister Cassidy and asked for a room on the top floor. The knowledge came slowly. Slower than it should have, considering.
It's Morley's hotel and Morley's on his way and I no longer have the energy to run.
This isn't much of a room to be dying in. It's cramped and cold, the walls a sickly shade of faded avocado with black spots creeping up from the carpet. The curtain rod is bent, sagging in a wide V between the curtain hooks. The walls are thin and the girl in the next room is crying again. I've been listening to her cry for hours. Twenty-three hours and sixteen minutes. Not the entire time, but most of it.
I know this, I have notes.
She stopped long enough to take a shower this morning, and again to pad down the hall and stop in at the cigarette machine. I can still taste the smoke from Lucky Strikes in the gaps between sniffles. I'm trying to distract myself, reading the Gideon's bible, hungry for sensation. I'm running my finger down the ragged line where someone has torn out the first three pages of Leviticus. It doesn't do much good, and when she upgrades to sobbing I put the book down and pad over to the wall so I can hear a little better. Making contact with the stucco should be sharp, but the hardness gives way to something unpleasant, soft and slick as toad-belly. I want to jerk my hand away, to wipe the misery free, but I don't. I don't.
The sound of her tears is glorious.
I blow my nose to clear it of the death-stink and take a shallow breath.
Morley would tell me I'm wasting my gifts, using them for frivolous voyeurism. I reach out anyway, pushing into her room, but there's too much grief and cigarette smoke to get anything else. I wait, patient, long enough to catch a fresh burst of tears. I can taste each one as it falls, a fizz of salt that melts against the tongue.
Eventually it gets old and I retreat to the bed, lie there unsure of what to do with my hands. The hotel room is sweltering, humid in a way that only Brisbane can manage.
Morley's going to kill me here. The smell of it is everywhere; a faint stink like rotting oranges beneath the bleached scent of motel sheets. Not strong, not yet, but Morley will come; it's not like he'd delegate a loose end like me, and circumstances argue against death by natural causes. Morley wins by process of elimination.
I'm okay with it, mostly, the dying. I just wish the room was a little cleaner, a little cooler during the nights. I wish the television in the corner worked so I had something else to do while I wait for Morley to show.
I used to think it was no big deal, the sensing. After all, everyone smells stuff. Everyone tastes things and gets those nervous feelings in their gut, or that twinge across the back of their neck that tells them something's up, the vague foresight of intuition. It was Morley who taught me otherwise, who told me I was special and taught me what else I could do.
He found me rehab. Rehab is full of people like me, people who smell too much and hear too much and taste thoughts or moods hanging in the air; people who just know too damn much about the folks around them, predicting their actions and picking up on thoughts up by osmosis. We get caught up in drinking and popping pills, trying to lock our minds away from the rest of the world. None of it works, not really, so we end up in rehab and go a little crazy from too much close proximity. There's something about smelling each other, about slipping into each other's heads, that makes everything worse. When people like Morley pull us out and offer us a purpose, well, more often than not we take it, no questions asked.
It was Morley who taught me how to shuffle, how to reach into someone's head and change the memory triggers. "It's like the smell of baking bread," he said. "Makes me think of my mother, yeah, but you can use it to trigger anything you want. Shuffle enough of those around, introduce the right memories, and you can rebuild a person any way you want."
Most people are easy to understand once you know how, their very scent a memory trigger that lets you remember their whole life for them. Morley was like that, when we first met. I knew who he was, what he was, right from the outset.
Some people are trickier to understand, a puzzle requiring prolonged study and close proximity, revealing themselves in momentary glimpses that may never form a complete picture. The girl in the next room is one of the latter, so I make up stories about her to fill in the gaps.
My current theories, an overview: she's running away from home; she's running away from her boyfriend; she's haunted; she's been told she has cancer and three days to live. All of these are broad strokes, basic guidelines to work from until my gut tells me I've got something right. I have longer lists written in red pen on hotel stationary, a constructed life jotted down and scrubbed out in haphazard order. I start a new list every hour, accumulating details until sixty minutes have passed.
At one o'clock, just after lunch, I write the following: Her heart is broken. Her name is Susan and she once loved a man named Kristoff, a tall man with hollow cheeks and the kind of laugh that sounds like a sniffling elephant. The two of them were never happy, not really, but they clung to one another for years because they thought it was necessary. There were no children, not after the miscarriage. She worked in a library; he traveled a lot. It surprised all their friends when she was the one who had an affair, who ended things when she could no longer stand the nights alone. Now she's here, weeping, refusing to be ignored. Weeping because her lover was supposed to come and hasn't. Because he was killed by a drunk driver on his way to meet her. Her lover's name was James. Or Stephen. Or Chris.
None of this is correct. She doesn't cry like a Susan, and a lover's absence is too convenient, simultaneously too spectacular and too mundane for the depths of the emotion displayed on the far side of my wall.
I fold the paper in half and add it to the pile. I wait for the clock to tick its way around to two and start the process again.
Morley was right about me, I did need a purpose. His seemed as good as any other, at first. Without him there's nothing left but this room and the girl and the endless waiting for death to arrive.
The Night Clerk shows up just after eleven, knocking on the door to my room and whispering the fake name I gave at the front desk. The Night Clerk smells like clean socks and folded underwear. He's easy to read. His secrets are ordinary, all shame and masturbation. Too ordinary, too easy; I entertain the possibility that they aren't real, just the product of a shuffle designed to keep him safe.
He tells me lies about phone calls and messages left at his desk. He tells me I need to change to another room because they want to do repairs in this one. He pretends this is an expensive hotel, offering service far better than the money I'm paying. We've been doing this for three days now, ever since I arrived. I still haven't seen the Night Clerk, but I know the taste of his presence too well. His lies are like an overripe grape, sour and too soft against the tongue. I spend the hours he's on duty watching the door. Occasionally I sit on the couch that I'm using as a barricade. The Night Clerk's tried to move me three times in the last hour. I refuse to give him the satisfaction of opening the door. The first faint whiff of orange can be traced back to him. He works for Morley, I think. His bland secrets shuffled into place, hiding something darker.
"Mister Cassidy," the Night Clerk says. "We really must get in and clean the room. You must need fresh towels, sir. You must need something."
I tell him I'm fine and listen to him walk away. He goes downstairs to the front desk and whispers something into the phone. He knows I can hear him, so he keeps his voice low.
Three o'clock and it's dark out, my room lit up by the green glow of the neon sign bolted to the exterior wall. The crying keeps me awake. I'm making notes on yellow paper. This time her name is Pamela Watson. She was a detective with the LAPD. She's trying to outrun her problems, although these are unrelated to her job. Or not. Do they connect? Did she kill someone she shouldn't have? She prefers red wine to beer, port to red wine. Dwindling funds reshape her preferences every week that slips by, the tastes of her past giving way to the reality of her bank account. She still has her gun, a thirty-eight automatic. Or would she still have the gun? Wouldn't they take it at the border, or when she tried to catch a plane? Yes, they would have done that. There's no way she could have it here.
When the crying stops she orders pizza. She goes down the hall for a fresh pack of cigarettes. She eats pepperoni on thick crust pizza, the doughy seams bursting with melted cheese. I press my face to the wall and breathe in the scene, the warm cheese and the gunpowder and the man who lies dead in her arms. I hold my breath, savoring it, sorting through the tastes until I find the familiar. I haven't got it right, not yet, but the details are getting closer. I can feel the truth pressing in on me, trying to burrow into my head.
Details are important to a guy with my talents. It's the first thing Morley taught me after he brought me onboard. So much of what we do is guess work, until we find the concrete.
I exhale and reach out, brushing against her mind. I can feel her stomach churning as cheese hits the booze. Her crying stops, replaced by puking. The sour acidic taste of bile seeps through the walls all night.
Morley is there when I wake up, the weight of his presence choking out everything else. Being around Morley is like being caught in an orchard fire, the smell of him as thick and cloying as smoke from green wood. I lean my weight against the couch when Morley knocks. I can hear his breathing, the thick rasp of a big man who has to breathe against his own weight. Morley didn't think of his mother when he smelt baking bread. I don't know that he thought of anything. Morley is a deck of cards still wrapped in cellophane, his history bound tight and impossible to shift. "I've got a job," he says. "Let me in."
I should say no. I should embrace the inevitable.
The weight of habit wins out, responding to the subtle tricks and conditioning Morley's built up over time. I pull the couch away from the door. I unlatch the chain and sit down on the bed. A petty act of rebellion, the only type I've got left. I leave Mister Morley to open his own damn door.
"I've got a job." Morley doesn't sit. He just stands by the bed and looms.
"No."
"I've got a job, and I need a shuffler. You're the best I've got available."
"Can't do it," I tell him. "You know the hotel's history, what it does to my nose."
"I know." Morley's face is bland, devoid of threats.
"I said I was done."
"You did." Morley shifts his weight, twisting his head until his neck cracks. "And if you're done, what happens next?"
I think about the girl, the hotel room, my death.
"Tomorrow night." Morley pulls a letter out of his jacket and hands it over. It feels slimy against my fingers, toad-belly slick like the walls. "I'm bringing you a project."
I say nothing. Morley takes that as a yes. "Nothing fancy, just a basic rewrite; something that will hold under questioning. We'll call it the last one, if it'll make you feel any better about doing it."
I breathe in and taste the truth buried beneath the lie. It will be the last one, one way or another.
The air tastes like burning toast, the smell of the hotel at rest. I go to sleep against my better judgment. When I sleep the room creeps up on me, the slimy sensation seeping off the walls and flooding my nose. It numbs the sense, shuts them down. Closing my eyes means resigning myself to a day of soiled tissues. I make a note to call the Night Clerk to ensure there's a fresh box waiting for me when the project arrives tomorrow. There's nothing to fear from him, now that Morley's arrived.
Sleeping is easier said than done. The bed sags to the left, just a little, but I notice it. Drifting towards sleep triggers a sensation much like falling. The girl in the next room is crying again, I can smell the port wine in her tears. She has no name, not now, with a project coming. I do not have the energy to work with two sets of details at once. It gets confusing and mistakes are made. Someone is reminded of someone else's golden retriever when they see a tennis ball rolling across the grass; the opening chords of Endless Love remind you of someone else's ex-girlfriend. It's enough to drive a person mad, if you rearrange enough.
She's drinking again, a fresh six-pack of Bud. God knows where she finds that shit in Brisbane. I can smell her hair, honey-gold and short. I can taste her blue eyes and crooked teeth, her three pairs of jeans that are starting to feel fuzzy whenever she puts them on. She's been living in hotel rooms for too long now, been running away for even longer. She doesn't realize she's in Morley's hotel, stuck next door to one of Morley's boys.
Morley's job weighs heavy on me. It isn't the job I wanted.
At the edge of sleep I start to find details. Her name is Amelia. Amelia Patterson. She's trying to drink away something, but I can't quite smell what. The name is right, and the running; the right backdrop but all the minor details are missing. I can smell the trail stretching back, out of the room and across the oceans. American, certainly; maybe the West Coast is wrong.
I get up, groggy, and step into the hall, bare feet pressing down on the sticky, worn carpet. This is caution being thrown to the wind the project's already coming. I knock on her door and wait, feeling exposed in the open hall. I can smell the night clerk at his desk, two floors down and safely unaware of the goings on in the hall. I can smell the girl as she stifles tears and looks at the locked door. She doesn't move to open it. "I didn't order anything."
"I'm from next door. I can hear you crying." I turn around and look behind me, just in case there's someone there. "It's keeping me awake. And I can see bits. Things you wouldn't want me to see."
There is movement. She pulls the door open until the chain snaps tight. She's got bloodshot eyes and lips stained cherry pink by the booze.
"Things like what?" she says.
"Things."
She pushes the door shut and takes the chain off. She opens it and lets me in.
"What do I smell like?"
I close my eyes and breathe. "Butter. Melting butter on hot toast."
"You a shuffler?"
There's hope in her voice. It makes me cringe. "I was. I'm giving up. I just wanted you to keep it down."
"Yeah?' she says. "You really think that's possible?"
"No. Not really."
We look at each other, saying nothing. I can feel her grief pressing against my temples. I think of all the stories I've made up about her, about Morley and the project that'll arrive come morning.
"Give me our hand," I tell her. "Whatever it is, I'll take it, or I'll bury it down deep. You don't have to remember, not anymore."
She thinks about it, tearing up. She offers me her hand.
I reach out and touch it and everything is details. It let them wash over me, unconnected to the past. They're better that way. Unconfirmed stories. They give me options the truth never could, triggers waiting for details. They float in the air around me, waiting to be rewoven. I see her mistakes and they're beautiful.
When I wake up I smell nothing, so I blow my nose in the hotel sheets. I press my tongue to my top lip as I breathe in the morning air, tasting the stale bagels and cheap coffee the hotel calls a continental breakfast. The Night Clerk has left food on the threshold of my room, a small box of corn flakes that folds into its own cardboard bowl. I eat, and when I'm done I listen at the wall. It's still there, the smell of oranges left too long in the sun, sharp and acidic and sour. Morley is on the premises. I order my tissues from the Night Clerk and start clearing out my sinuses.
The girl is gone but her grief remains. Her grief is tied to the hotel room now, a faint odor most people will never be able to place. Petty revenge against the Night Clerk, maybe, should people start complaining. Petty revenge is all I've got left. It burns against the fear of what's coming.
I cannot smell her, but the lingering remnants of her presence are like a cold weight against my temples. Morley and the Night Clerk are talking to the Project down in the lobby. The Project is saying unpleasant things about the Night Clerk's hotel. I breathe in and know for certain that one of them will kill me. I can taste it in the air. The project tastes like dark chocolate, bitter-sweet and rich. Greedy to the core. I put my head against the door and breathe deep. The girl is gone. I think she's been gone for hours, possibly even longer. She's as close to safe as she's going to get. She wasn't crying when she left.
This isn't much of a room to be dying in. I wait for Morley's project to walk up the stairs, trying to work out how the inevitable will happen.
The project sits on my bed, causing it to sag. He keeps both feet square on the carpet. He's a big man, moustached, his broad face full of scars. I can smell the history in the old wounds, warm and sweet like caramel. I reach into his head and re-sort them, adjusting the details of their origins: this one caused by a bicycle accident; this one caused by a short fight in a bar. The Project has a knife in his pocket, something thin and lean that still smells like blood. He works for Morley, in his old life. I could remake him as anything, anyone, but he'll still work for Morley when I'm done with him.
I breathe in and my head is full of the girl; her smell, her taste, her presence. I reach into the Project's mind and breathe out, sowing the taste of her tears and sorrow over the clustered dendrites of his memory. He curls his fingers into fists, uncurls; marking out the seconds with the tension in his hands. He weeps. He keeps on weeping. Morley sits in the corner of the room and watches, a gun across his lap and a scowl on his face.
It's Morley that will kill me, once he knows what I've done. I reach out and touch the Project's face, running my fingers over the details of his life. He looks at me, suspicious, but trusting in Morley's word. I've never done a good thing before. I'm not sure this qualifies.
I take a deep breath and shuffle, threading in the wrong memories, all the fictions I've made about her while waiting for this moment to come. His new name is Amanda Williamson; he's running from a lover, who is also the law. A policeman named Max with crisp lines in his uniforms, a square jaw full of stubble that's alluring in the right light. Amanda is running, playing blackjack for travel money. She killed her policeman's lover, an aging gambler from the south. Fictions. Half-truths. A chaotic swirl of triggers with no real memories behind them.
The Project is screaming, but that's nothing unusual. I strip his former life away and build another in his place. I give him everything, everything, the stories and the lies and the tickling ghost of not-quite-remembered moments I took from her.
When I'm done the Project won't stop crying, tears streaming down his face. You can taste them in air, thick and bitter with too much salt. Morley stands up to face me, the gun steady in his hands. I see his lips move, tasting the words instead of hearing them. What did you do? he says. His face contorts. Damn you, what did you do?
I try to answer but the laughter is there, spilling out of me like blood from an open wound. Morley is screaming but I can't hear the words. He waves the gun and something flashes, something leaps up and bites me right under my ribs. The man on the bed is crying. I'm pretty sure he will never stop. Morley screams at me and his gun flashes again.
And then I'm falling, falling backwards, until I make contact with the dark carpet on the floor. It hurts to breathe, but I smell things. I can still taste everything as blood bubbles over my bottom lip: Morley in the hallway, supporting the project's weight as he runs from the room; the Night Clerk at his desk, thin and pale as chalk; the trail of the girl from the room next door, the long arc of her scent leading out and away into the hot Brisbane streets.
Then everything tastes like oranges. Fresh and juicy and sweet.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, December 2nd, 2011

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