Each visit, they christened an empty room.
His route took him past the hotel once a month The hands on the clock moving towards the time when his car would pull into the lot. Her heart leapt against her ribs when he saw her behind the counter, a caged animal and they would have their rituals, pretending this was just another vacancy.
It had started with his amused request for change for the vending machine, a warm and stale husk which Harry reported to the rental company but never chased up a repair. She had worn a black t-shirt and a pair of shorts, conscious of her thighs as she closed the scarred and battered paperback as she stared up at him. He had a few days of stubble, a crisp white shirt worn open at the neck and his sleeves rolled up to the elbow, showing tanned and vascular forearms as he glanced at her book.
‘I saw the movie last month.’ he said.
Geraldine gave an automatic grimace, having loathed the adaptation and struggling with the vibe which wandered in with the man, another guest but one who looked brighter and sharper than most of the clientele who came to stay at Happy Acres. Harry’s dad had named the place, and it had stayed along with the sullen cleaning staff, the roaches in room 17 and her life there. No kids to speak of, and Harry had shrugged off the unspoken question with relief although Geraldine nursed a defeated melancholy inside her.
‘Did you like it?’ she said
He grimaced and shook his head.
‘Awful, they cut out the best bits from the book. I listen to the others in the series on audiobook, helps pass the time when I’m on the road, you know?’ he said.
She blushed and nodded, nervous to point out they sold cans of soda, chilled and expensive which made them a good eighty bucks a month on top of room fees. Harry had never promised her wealth, but this was a comfortable enough existence. Geraldine spoke to the guest from a place of hunger which surprised her with its speed.
Comfortable enough to die in, she thought, late at night with her husband’s inert seed trickling down her thighs. Harry had no problem with it at all and in his blithe ignorance, did not see her irritation grow underneath the surface of their ramshackle lives.
The man agreed to an overpriced soda, and along with a crisp ten, gave his name as Benjamin. She told her name back and hid the anguished expectation he would go back to his room. Ben’s eyes were expressive, and his smile came to him without artifice. He turned to leave and she asked him, breathless with excitement, if he had read the second trilogy. Ben raised his eyebrow and said he had pre-ordered the seventh book.
‘If it ever comes out, yeah?’ Geraldine said.
He was about her age, in good shape and dressed well. She discounted his attention and her interest, until he left and she caught him looking at her through the window, idling before he went back to his room. She tasted metals on her tongue, the acrid ghost of unfulfilled wants haunting her as she tried to return to her book.
Ben visited the following month, to find Geraldine fretting over a broken sink and with Harry away at a convention, she was panicking as water soaked the walls and carpet. Ben had swept past her, shut off the water and asked if his room was available. Geraldine had cut her hand on a shard of ceramic from where the sink came off the wall and tried to hide it from Ben. He had asked her where she kept the first aid kit and she’d looked away, embarrassed. Ben had gone to the trunk of his car and retrieved a small, well-stocked kit and bandaged her hand with steady, deliberate hands as she sat there, breathing in the sharp, clean musk of his skin and trying not to lose herself in his eyes. He breathed slow, and Geraldine noted the tension in his posture as his touch held import over her more than a simple act of first aid.
She had gone to his door that night, having grabbed a fresh pillow and towels, knocking on the door and preparing to run, back to her hiding place where she would wait for Harry and shower him with unearned gratitude.
Ben had answered the door in a vest and jeans, grinning to see her as he took the pillows and towels with a bemused, happy light in his eyes. She stood on the doorstep, aching with an unspoken fear, before he invited her in. They filled the awkward silence with conversation until Ben moved past her to grab the remote control and they met at an angle which pressed them against one another. His lean, hard body was electric against hers and when her lips drew apart to accept his against hers, it held a beautiful sense of predestination. She left in the dark, flushed and disbelieving whilst clad in a new skin.
They negotiated nothing. Her halting desires became boldness through his quiet, unapologetic attention, and after the next month, she flew at him, instructing him to smack her here, hold her by this part and to call her names which burst up from the rich darkness of her unspoken desires. Their lives before came out in whispers afterwards, fighting the itching need to protect this time and space by leaving it. He stayed in a different room, and each time, she found him waiting for her. Apart, she imagined his life as a carousel of prettier, smarter women on his arm but he reassured her of his focus on his career and his friends. She searched for him online, found he was everything he said he was and hated herself for the doubts, necessary as they both were.Ben had stirred up dangerous hopes of liberation in her, talking about a potential move to the coast and a big promotion.
Geraldine wondered if he was humouring her. He was effusive with praise but she was not a skinny blonde. Not a prize, but a vacancy being filled. Ben had been married, but they had grown apart and her researches had thrown up a blonde clinging to the arm of a soft, bearded man with a gut much like her Harry.
She worried more than she enjoyed Ben, which meant it was real to her. Tomorrow, he was driving down for another night and she spent the day lost in a haze of lustful anticipation and nerves.
The news of the crash filtered over the airwaves, and she had endured two days of torture before Ben was identified. It was no relief to know, and having been a secret, she grieved in private for him. She practiced an emotional sequestration, weeping in clean, stale rooms and leaving her pain there like a used towel, steaming and twisted at the foot of the bed.
Harry had to let one of the cleaning staff go, so Geraldine had to push the cart along the corridors, looking for somewhere to cry. She turned the corner and looked at the wan morning light.
The women stood outside each door.
One woman, she noticed.
Geraldine knew the simple, clumsy power an item of clothing held over a man. A utilitarian garment made into something sexual by the act of observation. Men had a hunger to see and Geraldine revelled in how she affected him whenever they met. The things she mocked about herself were revelations to him, her thick thighs and high round ass inspired him to acts of carnal worship, his stoic restraint shed alongside his clothes as they coupled with inventive frenzy together. She wore something simple for him, although he came bearing confections of silk and lace which she would wear for his pleasure, the wide eyes and sighs in the indirect light. Geraldine lived for the moments where she would stand at the door, knock and wait to be let in.
Moments which she would never know again.
The light trailed through the mirror images of her and she clung to the handle of the cart, tears splashing down her face as each image turned and looked into her eyes, shimmering with all the lust, the love, the pain and grief she carried inside her. Harry clung to her at night, aware something had changed but unable to articulate it for fear of finding out.
She let go of the cart and staggered down the hall, arms outstretched to receive the blessing of madness. The thick, uneven carpet bumped her left foot, turning it inwards and she tripped, putting her hands out to catch her fall. Jarring, tingling impact traveled up her arms and she rolled onto her back, weeping in perfect, practiced silence.
Her images looked down at her, hands reaching out, some smiled, other wept in perfect imitation and one of her had the snarl of sexual frustration carved onto her pleasant, rounded features. They lifted her up and stood around her, gathered around the door to 7. She looked down and undid the buttons on the tabard, letting it fall to the ground as she smoothed down her black t-shirt.
She slipped the pass card downwards and the door opened with a click. Her images rushed in, without the restraint of physics to contain them but she followed. Ben stood before her, and she charged, faster than any ghost to fall into his embrace.
Harry was suspected of involvement in Geraldine’s disappearance, but that went away and so did he. He sold Happy Acres to his nephew, who upgraded the place and pitched it to hipsters, along with the ghost story of his step-aunt’s disappearance. He hired a theatre graduate to conduct tours, but he never mentioned her by name. One thing right about the story was the frequency of their sightings. Two shadows, the smell of musk and fuck, a fleeting experience before disappearing.
Each visit, they christened an empty room.