The vomit of a thousand or so small white dots stuck to the windowpane like wedding confetti. Guest figured the hotel had been designed with this strange feature to avoid people walking into the window and falling to their death. This was well before it was turned into a quarantine hotel of course. No architect would’ve intentionally tortured the poor soul who had this as their view for fourteen whole days and nights, would they?
When the sun appeared through a crack between buildings, Guest found a space between the dots to watch two kittens play in one of the flats opposite. The little balls of fur and teeth would pull at a toy fish that wriggled like bait.
Guest would think of their father then, and how he had taken them fishing as a child. The taste of salt air and ice-cream. Guest closed their eyes, remembering the stories he would tell, particularly the one that involved Guest’s father wrestling a surfer from the jaws of a shark. When Guest called their father now they would think of that shark, that strength, but it no longer made sense against the frail and sunken face that peered out at him from his phone.
How cruel is age, how curious time.
“Does he know? Does he know I’m coming home?” Guest would ask the neighbour when their father got tired, but the neighbour never knew.
Had someone spoken? Guest’s eyes scanned the room to find evidence of whispers, before dismissing it to jet lag and too much time spent alone.
A voice again, but Guest only heard the knock on the door. They contained themselves enough to remember the rules:
- Wash hands
- Turn on the fan in the bathroom
- Place the mask that hung on the back of the door over the face
- Open the door and wave to the camera
It was always strange staring into that long velvet hallway with the tall Pollock-esque painting at the end of it like a portal to another dimension. There were gashes of red paint on the canvas that made Guest think of a gunshot to the head and this in turn led to thoughts of horror movies. But here at their door was just a small paper bag with a meal inside. There was nothing else waiting; no horror, no freedom.
Guest gorged their meal in front of the telly, leaving a bottle of pineapple juice and two small caramel muffins to break up the tedium later that day. Glancing back through the polkadot window, they saw the kittens were no longer there. Just the string and the fish remained.
PART TWO – ROOM
Guest’s plane had only fifteen or so passengers on board. When they landed, they were greeted first by the army, then the police. Pandemic restrictions, they had been warned. The army were pleasant enough – Guest watched as one woman began to cry to a soldier, she was so happy to be home – but the police wore stern faces and tight blue shirts with the unforgiving mark of tropical heat streaked beneath armpits. Guest and the rest of the passengers lingered for as long as they could before boarding the coach; breathing in palm trees and bark chips through their thick paper masks. Two stern faces and tight blue shirts straddled their motorbikes and drove alongside them like a funeral procession for The Queen, all the while lazy morning traffic and morning talk-back radio toyed at threads of normality. Eventually they pulled up outside the hotel where Guest would spend their quarantine.
The police pulled crime scene tape across the entrance and hand sanitiser was tossed between them like kids exchanging gum. When eventually it was Guest’s turn to go inside, they were relieved. The room was beautiful and it took Guest’s breath away. Really it was more like a suite, with its large bedroom on one side of the corridor and a kitchen and living space at the other. A wet room with a shower and toilet faced a wall that was dressed up in Sunday Best; all gold and black shimmer.
Guest was six days into their stay when the text came. They surprised themselves by feeling nothing. Setting up a trip around the Cotswolds, Guest peddled on their exercise bike longer and harder than usual. If any tears were shed they could be mistaken for sweat. Coughing, they turned on the shower, breathing the wet air into their dry lungs. The weather app had said to expect a humid high of 35 degrees that day, but without an open window and only a sprinkle of sunshine at kitten o’clock, how would they really know?
With one white towel around their head and another swaddling their body, Guest sat on the sofa contemplating what to do before their breakfast arrived. It was then they noticed that their bottle of wine had been opened. They went to the fridge for a leftover muffin, but the fridge was empty.
Wel… comb…. Hmmmmmm
“Who is that?” The guest yelled out to nobody, figuring they may as well respond out loud to the voices in their head. A white haired weather man inside the television tapped at the screen and looked out at Guest grinning.
I do apologise, said the weatherman. You see I’ve been drinking. Not sensible when you’re alone as much as I am, but needs must. It’s easier to use… someone else’s body to talk when I’m a little inebriated.
Guest watched as his bottle of wine lifted from the table and splashed to the floor, making the carpet bleed.
“What’s happening?” Guest looked around the room.
It’ll dry. The white haired weather man yawned and rubbed his eyes. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Room.
Yes, your Room. It’s nice to finally meet you, you know, Guest to Room. I’ve been trying for days, and nearly gave up. I figured you were deaf.
Guest sighed and shrugged. They offered Room tea to sober them up, which Room accepted with delight and that night, Guest and Room played Gin Rummy. It was a game Guest had played with their father a hundred times or more. Guest poured what was left of the wine into a glass – for Room had swallowed most of it – and the two shared it into the night.
PART THREE – STAIN
The morning of day eight, a long low siren woke Guest. They were dreaming of the sea, and it took them a while to get their bearings for they thought they were hearing the foghorn from a lighthouse.
Guest pulled back the covers and opened the curtains. Squinting between the myriad of dots they thought they could make out a man, running toward the old Porthouse by the river. An escapee! Guest felt a thrill in their stomach and every fibre of their being egged the man on.
Not all Rooms care like I do you know. Some are just… Room’s voice cracked a little… horrid to their Guests!
Guest yawned good morning as they stared out the window together.
“Poor bastard,” said Guest. “Don’t blame them, I’d do anything to have a taste of freedom right now.”
Guest realised they had said the wrong thing as they felt Room wilt like sick flowers.
“Shall I boil the kettle for a nice cup of tea?” Guest tried to cheer Room up but Room had gone quiet. “How about one of those little caramel muffins? I should have a couple more coming with breakfast. They’re all yours. If you want.”
Room said nothing, so Guest went about their morning as usual; checking the news, doing some time on the bike whilst listening to their favourite podcast, then, an episode of that show they liked to watch. When midday came around with the sunshine and the kittens, Room drew the curtains and refused to open them.
“Please, Room. Please let me see them.” Guest asked quietly, respectfully. “It’s the only time I see other people, I mean… living things. It’s lonely you know.”
WHAT WOULD YOU KNOW OF LONELINESS. Room spat and shook and Guest caved in on themselves, shuddering. They spent the day apart, as much as they could in a space where they existed together.
The next day Guest decided they would sketch the face of Room. It was a wide, kind face, with curtains for hair, a tap for a nose and rows of plastic meal containers for teeth. Guest felt they’d really captured Room’s best side and they left the little drawing on the table near the television before taking off their clothes and heading to the bathroom to shower.
As the hot water hit Guest’s shoulders, a voice crept in between the steam.
Thank you, Room whispered. No one has ever seen me like this. You’ve captured my soul. I’m sorry for my terrible mood. You’re leaving me soon and I… I am afraid to be alone
“You’ll be okay.” The guest washed suds from their hair as they spoke blindly. “There’ll be more like me here soon, don’t worry.”
Perhaps. Room sighed. Can I…wash you?
“Wash me?” Guest wasn’t sure they could cope with another day of Room’s temper. “Sure. I guess.” If you must, they muttered to themselves, hoping Room didn’t hear.
A flying face washer slapped Guest in the face before slipping to the plughole. Guest smiled politely when Room expressed frustration at their lack of hands.
A Guest towel dried, they thanked Room for a lovely wash, told them they were gentle and thoughtful. It wasn’t really a lie. There had been a connection, of sorts, Guest couldn’t deny that. It wasn’t human, but it was still something.
When Guest wandered into the kitchen they noticed the blood-red wine stain had widened. Ignoring it, they took out a bread knife and hacked at the pineapple that had been sent by their father’s neighbour. Sharp knives were forbidden in the rooms, in case Guests did something stupid like try to carve up a pernicious fruit and choke themselves with its flesh.
On day nine, Guest woke late. Perhaps they were finally starting to relax in this strange new place. They listened out for Room but there was only silence. On their way to make tea, Guest’s feet began to feel sticky. Whey they looked down, they saw the wine stain had now covered the entire floor of the kitchen and living room. It was a pulsating, living thing now, beating like a heart. Guest lost their balance and fell inside.
In a quiet red room, or womb, the guest couldn’t tell which, a woman sat on a rocking chair, knitting with blunt needles. She reminded Guest of their long dead mother. Putting her knitting down to one side, the woman lit a long thin cigarette and glared at Guest. Her voice was toffee-apple sticky with undertones of something not quite human.
“You know Room’s intentions are not kind ones, don’t you?” The woman watched the guest quizzically.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“I call bullshit. You know exactly what I mean. You’ve spent your whole life not seeing what is right in front of your nose, you stupid child.”
“Mum?” Guest blinked.
“Look,” the woman softened. “Just be careful. You’re not Room’s first and you won’t be their last. Room has… ways. Techniques. Let me give you a warning, some words to remember should you ever feel tempted to stay: Eat Room before Room eats you.”
“Room wants to eat me?” Guest was shocked. Room was weird sure, but not psycho weird.
“Swallow you whole. Washed down with some wine or pineapple juice and those little muffins they like so much.” The woman’s voice started to warp and flicker. She breathed out smoke like a wise old dragon and in fact there was so much smoke now Guest started coughing and couldn’t stop. When eventually they opened their eyes they were sat back on the sofa in their living room; also now heavy with smoke.
They say it’s a lack of oxygen, the way you find the air hard to breath after you exercise. Nothing can get through the nooks and crannies because we’re so tightly sealed in here… together. Oh poor lamb! What with that and a general lack of humidity, by the time you leave here you’ll be a husk!
A jet of smoke shot out from the kitchen sink.
“Are you smoking?” Guest looked for evidence of cigarettes. “Are you actually smoking, smoking? What kind of a room are you anyway?! They could keep me here for longer if they think I’m breaking rules. I’m not sure I…” Guest’s words caught in their throat.
Guest remembered the advice from the woman who lived in a stain. Eat Room before Room eats you! Eat Room before Room eats you!
“They could make me move to another room.” Guest smirked to themselves.
Room and Guest barely spoke a word to each other for the rest of the day, the smoke eventually disappearing through whatever small nooks and crannies it could find.
PART FOUR – HOME
On day fourteen, Guest’s last breakfast came a slip of paper. On one side were stretching exercises, on the other a crossword and Quote of the Day.
“Good morning is not just a word,” said the quote. “It’s an action and a belief to live the entire day well. Morning is the time when you set the tone for the rest of the day. Set it right. Have a nice day.” The author was credited beneath: Unknown and the crossword had no questions or clues.
“Mother-fucking madhouse,” Guest said before tearing up the paper and swallowing it whole.
After breakfast, Guest drew the curtain and a swallow passed by, looping between the mirrored buildings that played its reflection like a harp. With the bird came a desire for freedom, something Guest had not dared think about these past two weeks. Guest had texted their father’s neighbour not long after they’d arrived, asking them for a recent photo of the family home. They wanted to see the garden with its old spinning clothes line and the jacaranda flowers that would bruise the gutter in the summer. The neighbour never did send a photo. The next message Guest received from them would be that text, and Guest didn’t feel right asking for a photo after that.
Today was the last day before Guest could leave by law. Room had been particularly needy. When Guest thought of popping back to the woman who lived in the stain for advice, Guest saw the stain had all but gone, shrunk to the size of a pea. It was as if Room had swallowed it whole.
That night, Guest packed their suitcase and waited patiently for the call from the police at 12.01am. Guest had lied to Room, told Room they weren’t leaving until later that morning. Guest didn’t now why they lied, they supposed it was the woman who lived in a stain’s words that kept them on their toes. You must eat Room! You must eat Room! It hadn’t helped either that as the mist had cleared in the bathroom one evening, Guest was sure they saw the word hungry pawed out on the mirror.
From that point on, Guest had decided to eat things. Inanimate things, when they thought Room wasn’t looking. It started with paper from the notepad by the telephone. Then it was a small piece of fabric torn from the bed spread; a little here and there from the pillows. The curtain came next, then the occasional lick of tap and kitchen sink. Guest had to be subtle, but it appeared to be working. Room seemed calmer, less dictatorial and obsessive.
But that night, as Guest waited quietly by the phone at 11.58pm, Room spoke.
Why aren’t you sleeping?
“I’m… restless.” Guest lied, jumping.
You’re up to something. I can tell. Why do you wait by the phone.
“My… my father might ring…”
Your father would call on your little light box, no?
The phone rang and Guest answered it, a thrill in the pit of their stomach. Guest put the phone down and made their way to the door with their suitcase. That’s when they felt Room shudder.
“Please.” Guest whispered through gritted teeth. “You have to let me go.”
Guest stared at the door, desperately hoping their plan would work before throwing Room the reassuring smile that a mother might give their frightened child.
“It’s okay, Room.” Guest called out. “It’s just Room Service. Muffins! The little ones you like so much. I ordered them just for you.”
Room stopped shaking.
Will there be pineapple juice and wine?
“There are four bottles of juice in the fridge. You know I save them for you. We are out of wine, but that’s okay. It’s no good for you… or me… anyway.”
Guest waited for Room to look in the fridge, before opening the door and running. They ran past the gunshot wound painting, and into the lift, then from the lift into the arms of a smiling police officer. She looked tanned and happy, the sort of sun-kissed complexion that implied recent BBQs and beach swims. The police officer congratulated Guest on making it through the stay before asking if they had someone to drive them home.
What a strange word! Guest said they couldn’t wait to get hmmmmmmmmmm and that their father’s neighbour would be here any moment to pick them up.
The officer gave Guest a short nod and a smile before waving a hand in the direction of the automatic doors that led to where the crickets sang and the possums danced.
Guest drunk the fume-stained city air into their lungs then promptly vomited. It felt like the nausea would never end; a purging of paper and fabric, pineapple juice and muffins. With one final heave, they felt satiated. Wiping their mouth with an old paper mask, Guest began their walk home. No one would be waiting for them there, but Guest didn’t mind. Their father’s funeral had been today. Guest had missed it because the crematorium hadn’t been able to wait another day. The neighbour had texted Guest to let them know of the death and the details.
Guest turned to look back at the hotel, immediately spotting the window to their room on the thirteenth floor. It was the only one with the light turned on; a sheet of rain ran down its window, like tears. In the morning, Guest would visit their father’s new home in a sea of boxes at the crematorium. Beside Guest’s father’s would be Guest’s mother, now sat together for eternity in a row of miniature gym lockers.
Guest kept walking. It would be a long walk home, two hours or more, but Guest didn’t mind. There would be familiar roads and trees and sky and air and a whole host of smells, good ones and bad, but all of them exquisite, like salt water on the tongue.