art by Alan Bao
The Girl in the Next Room is Crying Again
by Peter M Ball
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."