Storyglossia Issue 25, December 2007.

Stranger Stranger

by Eva Konstantopoulos


It's a little past nine when she pulls into the gravel lot. She locks her car doors twice and then walks to the Office. Presses the buzzer. Once. Twice. A man in flannel pajamas comes down, one eye wielded shut. He wears no wedding ring and wants her to pay with a credit card. She says she'll pay with cash.

Walking into the room, the first thing she notices are the pillowcases. One is polka dot, the other white. The second thing she notices is that the toilet doesn't flush, not really. Emily watches the yellow water swirl and swirl. It takes thirteen seconds for the water to disappear and then the toilet paper just comes back up. A sticker hangs on the wall above her head with a faded barcode: 0014. There are short, stubby lines on the comforter. Other people's hair! And she has to kill three spiders with her shoe before getting into bed.

She turns on the television. An orange and yellow fish smiles and waves its fins at her. Outside the window, she hears the rumble of the trucks. They zoom by like ferocious giants, angry that the mountains are in the way, plowing through the valleys and darkness. Emily is convinced there's not much else. She tries to call home. The phone hums, but there is no connection. She considers finding a payphone, but this town is one street wide. Besides, even if she did find a phone, she didn't have any quarters, and there was no bank that would be open at this hour, and there was no bank anyway, not that she saw, and she didn't know anyone to ask.

She unfolds the map that guided her from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Places her index finger over the paper. The tangled roads run like veins on the page, making the state of California look like a complicated organ. She remembers briefly reading a sign before stumbling on this town. She knows she's in a —ville. Deathville. Runville. The floor is stained. Red? A faded picture of Chinese flowers hangs crooked on the wall, and a chair that needs a coat of polish lies under a white desk. The walls are chipped. Emily eyes the vent above the television. She tries not to look, there might be a camera watching her. She doesn't want the one eyed man to know that she knows. She doesn't want to take a shower. Maybe he'll be hunched by the toilet when she pulls back the curtain. And then there's that beeping. Where is it coming from? A smoke alarm? A clock? A timer of some sort? She tries to call home again. No luck. There is a soiled tissue in the wastebasket, and she's dehydrated—thirsty from all the secrets that have been covered up in this place. The 101. You'd think she was safe. California. You'd think she was home. But Cali is big. It's like saying Georgia's just like Maryland. Two totally different worlds. If it weren't for those sixteen wheelers—they swerved behind her, edged her to go and go until there was nothing else to do but pull across the white line. And that radio, the only voices the mountains allowed were a preacher talking about Jesus, Bob Marley, and a young man selling life insurance.

Emily lies down. Below the faded comforter, the sheets are stiff and cold, as if stolen from a hospital. Her head is by the window. Smudges of fingerprints on the wall. There is talk of a plane crash on TV. It's one of those accidents that no one can help. A camera films the smoke and fire from above so the people are faceless, running like beetles through the hillside. If there was ever a place for something to—but no, she won't even finish that thought.

The space between her stomach and liver tightens. Emily senses that if she isn't careful, her life will become this room. Maybe she'll set the alarm to four. Maybe she won't sleep at all. This room makes her want to move back to the town she grew up in and never leave. If there was signal, she'd call up her high school sweetheart and say, yes, I'll marry you, please. She knows her high school sweetheart is nothing like this room, and she will never stay in a room like this if she is with him until death do us part. She places her hands by her thighs. She tries not to scratch herself, but her skin tingles from the sheets. The walls smell like stranger and even though Emily knows she is probably the only stranger in this room, she still can't close her eyes. After all, the door hardly locks. Just a knob. Easily picked. She switches the channel back to the smiling yellow and orange fish and watches it swim across the screen, up and down and left and right and up and down and left and right and left and up and down and right and up and down and left and right and down and left and up and right and up and down and left and right until there is nothing else in the room except this fish, this yellow and orange blob, and when the fish is gone, replaced by a dull static snow, the snow is all Emily sees, all Emily hears, all Emily knows.

Copyright©2007 Eva Konstantopoulos