By Jamie Dubois
I wake to a noise. I’m not sure if I’ve dreamt it. It might have been a whisper. Or a stifled scream. Already the brief memory of it escapes me, sprints from shadow to shadow like a rat. My eyelids snap open to disorienting darkness. There is only silence around me. I feel my pupils yawn wide as I search the room for any clue to where I am. The darkness obscures everything.
I turn my head, and there is a brief, violent swim of vertigo. My hands clutch at the sheets to steady my body. Am I on a ship? I listen for impatient waves slapping at the hull. I sniff at the air for the dampness of mildew, seeping wood at the belly of a boat, salt spray of the sea. I smell only my sour breath and lick the tequila and coppery taste of blood from my lips like a cat. Beneath this, there is a disquieting smell that I cannot place. A rotten melon, curdled milk, a can of fish left in the sun. Its identity eludes me. There is a flash of a memory: too many margaritas, bending over a hedge as I vomited, someone’s silky chest hair pressed against my cheek. The memory slips through my fingers as easily as sand. The room stops spinning and rocking, comes to a sputtering stop.
My eyes begin to scan for any bit of light. They find the soft blue fog of an alarm clock to my left. At first, there is relief, like a warm wind blowing through me. A recognizable object. Something to root me in this place, this time in history. But I have no memory of this clock, the shape of the numbers, its location to my left. I always sleep on the right side of the bed. I remember I do not own an alarm clock, preferring the delicate chimes of my cellular alarm. The time reads 4:17 p.m. I think it must be wrong. It can’t be this dark in the middle of the afternoon. I keep scanning the room, trying to place where I am, to orient the location of each spark of light. There must be a pattern to the light, a geometric equation pointing to a door somewhere, and where there is a door, maybe an answer.
I prop myself onto my elbows, and a thin sliver of light pierces the corner of my eye, commanding me to look up right. A delicate slash of lemon between the curtains. Around it, the shadows begin to detach from the walls, the squid ink blackness slithers away from the quivering, watery light. That tiny blade of sun scrapes at my retinas, rattles around my brain. I bring my hand to my face trying to dampen the throbbing in my head that pounds away like a marching band out of tune. My fingers trace the folds of the pillowcase embossed on my cheek. I stop at something sticky, like dried ice cream, and I realize it is not just on my face but also on my hand. Again I sniff, this time at my fingers. Metallic and feral, the tannin of red wine. The room boils with foreboding.
I try to distinguish the texture of the walls, the lump of furniture that must be a chair, a Cerberus crouching in the corner. I hear the soft scrape of my callouses against the linens as I send my foot across the bed to be sure I am alone. My toe hits what feels like a river stone, the surface smooth and cold. My heart flutters, a red flag in the wind. There is someone laying in the bed next to me.
A loud knock at the door.
“Hello?” a man’s voice calls. “Is anyone in there? Check out time was 5 hours ago. I am going to open the door if you don’t answer.”
I don’t respond because I can’t shake the thought that there is something wrong with the body stretched out at my side. I listen but don’t hear any snoring or movement, nothing that gives away who this person is. There is a coiled danger beside me, a viperous entity waiting to spring. I am suddenly aware that I am naked. I peel away my limbs, inch to the left, and pull myself to standing. My whole body aches, and my knees liquefy beneath me.
A door opens far to my left. A faceless silhouette marches across the room to the drapes and thrusts them open, severing me from the darkness and jolting me into the present. I shade my eyes from the sun, wrap the other arm across my bare breasts. There is a tenderness in the man’s face as his eyes dart across the bruises on my arms, my bloodied lip, my trembling legs.
The spotlight from the window lands on the man still in the bed. His mouth open as if surprised, jaw gone slack, lips blue as if drinking in a cold wind, tongue a dried apricot shriveled in his throat. And still, he is a stranger to me. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the hotel clerk follow my startled gaze to the bed. Together we stand watching the dead man’s chest for the rise and fall of a breath that never comes. The clerk hands me a torn dress from the chair. His eyes point to the open doorway as he lifts the phone to call the police.