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Halloween Special: Error 237

shining-1

You might not be aware of this, but the end of Blade Runner is the beginning of The Shining. A friend reminded me of this during a conversation we shared at Can-Con earlier this month. “Well, it works,” I said. “They do talk about going north. And the Overlook is really on Mount Hood, in Oregon, north of LA. You could drive there. So it works. Which begs the question: are replicants haunted by human ghosts?”

Well? Are they?

Happy Halloween.

“Well, the winters here used to be…fantastically cruel.”

It was hard to tell, with the manager. He was older. Good at it. Close to the end of his years. You hardly noticed the stiffness in his joints. It could have been arthritis. Only it wasn’t. This would be his last winter. “Yeah?” Richard asked. “And now?”

“Now, the winters are…” the manager gestured at the dull brown mountainside waiting beyond the windows. Spindly trees clung to its bare surface. The only hint of white was the wreath of mist at the mountain’s top, which they’d seen on the drive up. They were the only drivers on the road. Everyone else was headed the other way. “Like this.”

“So you’ve got a lack of clientele, is what you’re saying.”

“That’s what I’m saying. No one comes to ski. No one skis. No one sleds. No one stays.”

It was a problem with the old winter resorts. Without a winter, you couldn’t have a resort. Without snow, you couldn’t ski. Without skiers, you couldn’t make money. It was cheaper to shut the whole thing down until spring.

“It’s still not safe for hikers, though, is it?”

The manager shook his head definitively. No consideration. No reaction. No fleeting moment of empathy for what it would be like to get lost and dead up there in the wind and the fog. “No. It’s not safe. For anybody.”

“Well, I’m not much of a hiker.”

“And your wife? Is she…outdoorsy?”

Was she? He had no idea. He’d known her for a week at most. Maybe she was, once. Or maybe that was the other one. Either way, it was a long time ago. Another lifetime. Someone else’s. “No,” he said. “She’s not.” He cleared his throat. Tried to stop himself. Couldn’t. “She’s not my wife, either.”

“No?”

Richard shook his head. “I had one of those, already. Sushi, she called me. Cold fish.”

The manager laughed. It was an impressively real laugh. Long and dry like the joke was sharp enough to prick his lungs. And just like that, he had the job.

***

His not-wife sat in the lobby smoking a cigarette. They allowed you to do that, here. It was a point of pride. A draw for customers. The blue smoke of the cigarette drifted high above the mustard and tangerine of the furniture. She looked out of place against the warm tones. She was white and red and black and grey, still, with her mink coat and her lacquered mouth. A scarf held her hair in place. He’d enjoyed touching it, while he thought she slept, and after she noticed his fingers in the curls she wrapped them up tight. “For the drive,” she’d said, but he knew better.

Across from his not-wife stood two little girls in matching blue dresses. They looked like a photograph he remembered, but he didn’t remember where he’d seen it. Maybe she recognized them, too. Maybe that was why she stared at them so intently through the haze of her cigarette.

“So, your fella over here,” the manager said. She flinched. She looked at them both, first Richard and then the manager. She didn’t get up, or tamp out her cigarette. Just stared at them through the smoke. The manager jerked a thumb at Richard. “He a cold fish?”

Slowly, she shook her head. She crushed out her cigarette. “Him? He’s anything but.”

The manager laughed. He ushered them toward the kitchen. “What was your name again?”

“Leah,” she said.

“Like in that movie?”

She pulled the scarf away from her curls.  Now free, they bloomed up from her face dark and gleaming. “Like in the Bible. Rachael’s sister.”

The manager threw Richard a look. She could do that. Unnerve people. The manager hadn’t made her, yet. Didn’t know what she was. It didn’t always take one to know one. “Come on,” Richard said. “We should do the tour. Let the guests clear out.”

“Oh, I think they’re all mostly gone, by now.” the manager said. “Check-out is at noon.”

He was about to say something about the girls, but when he glanced at the lobby, only the ghost of “Leah’s” cigarette remained there. It hung in the air, thin and blue and diaphonous, stretching high up to the vaulted ceiling and disappearing into white winter light.

***

He didn’t see much of her, once they locked the doors. He tried to find a routine, but he’d never had one. They’d taken all the alcohol away — insurance purposes — but the ballroom still had a piano. So did the lobby. Both were equally out of tune in different ways. He looked up how to tune them himself and set about doing so. He started by leaving a glass of water beside each piano. Up here the air was too dry. The glasses were empty, each morning.

“Terrible things happened here,” she told him over breakfast, a week later.

“Terrible things happen in every hotel,” he said. “That’s what they’re for.”

“We’re not supposed to go into the rooms, are we?”

He shook his head. “No. We’re not.” He wondered what she was really asking. He’d seen promotional material about the rooms. The beds were bigger and newer than the ones in their attic quarters, the linens softer. The A-frame apartment the manager assigned them always seemed too small for her. At night he heard her footsteps creaking along the floorboards. In his old building he’d been used to the noise. Here, the silence made everything seem more meaningful. Like he could finally listen carefully to all the cues he’d missed. “Do you want to?”

She looked away and shook her head.

“If it would help you sleep-”

“It wouldn’t.”

***

She disappeared for hours at a time. The time disappeared with her. He drank his coffee and sometimes he went out to trim the maze and sometimes he checked the furnance and eventually he had to wash his shirts in the huge old industrial washers deep in the basement, the ones made for Monday morning loads of sheets and towels. But afternoons he somehow always wound up in front of the ballroom piano. The ballroom had better acoustics. And without windows, it was easier to pretend that it was not winter, that they were still in the city, that they were not alone. When he played the notes echoed high above him, tickling the chandeliers, and he thought he heard people. It felt good. And it was better to pretend a little, anyway. Healthy. The manager had even warned him about the silence.

“It can kill you, that quiet,” he’d said. “We had some trouble, before. With other caretakers. That’s why we don’t hire…”

But then he’d trailed off, like he’d remembered something embarrassing. It was probably confidential information. Stuff he wasn’t supposed to talk about. Richard had a way of getting that kind of thing out of people, whether they were real or not.

***

“Something strange happened to me, today,” she said, in the dark.

“Strange? Strange how?”

“I…” She rolled over to her back. Stared at the ceiling. “I was in the maze. And I knew all the steps. I knew exactly how to get to the centre, and exactly how to get out.”

“Well, that’s lucky, isn’t it? It’s better than getting lost.”

“Do you think I’ve been here, before? Me, or…her?”

He reached for her. They’d had to push the beds together — or he had to, anyway, while she stood by and watched and turned her lighter over and over in her hand — and so the distance was awkward. But eventually his fingers found her cool ones. “Maybe you’re just smart,” he said. “Maybe you figured it out all by yourself.”

Her hand pulled away. “That’s not what you really think though, is it?”

Now he pulled away, and reached for his own lighter. “I think I’m glad I didn’t have to go in there and hunt you down.”

“Would you have?” she asked. “Hunted me down?”

***

Winter deepened. The wind hugged the hotel tight. It whined down the elevators and rattled the windows. The radiators clanked and the pipes froze and he had to keep taps running, so the hotel was full of whispers and shrieks and the sound of his piano. With the wind it sounded like there were even more people with him in the ballroom: dancers, partygoers, staff. Glasses clinking. Keys sliding across tables. Laughter. Promises.

They never discussed his playing, but she must have liked it. She had found a stray bottle of bourbon and every afternoon it was there, waiting for him beside the piano. A tumbler sat beside it on a tray. It was heavy and square. Almost like the ones in his place in the city. He missed those glasses. The weight of them. How real they felt.

“It wouldn’t be make-believe,” he sang to himself, “if you believed in me.”

***

On Christmas Eve, he lost her.

She didn’t come to breakfast. Or lunch. Or dinner. Not that he noticed, at first. He didn’t need food the way he used to. He had sets to do. It was the only way to add structure to the day, he’d discovered. You had to play shifts on the piano. Two hours at lunch, then again at four, playing clear through happy hour and into dinner. She didn’t mind late dinners, she said. Didn’t mind him dashing in and wolfing down and heading out. It was a game. But you had to play games, here. Had to fill the silence. That’s what he told her, and she nodded solemnly, saying nothing, like he was making perfect sense. Because of course he made perfect sense. He had gotten them this far, hadn’t he? They were safe here, weren’t they? Didn’t that mean he knew best?

So he wasn’t truly sure how long she’d been gone until he came up to the attic and found the bed empty. He looked for her at the bay window, and in the kitchenette, and in front of the screen, but she wasn’t there.

His fingers ached. It was the winter in his joints, he figured. Or the the long hours spent playing. He knew all the Christmas songs, now. He was still working on Auld Lange Syne. No matter how many times he practised the overture, it never sounded quite right. Maybe it only ever sounded right on New Year’s Eve. He had time to get it right. He could start practising right now, if he wanted to. He could find her, on the way. Make her listen to his progress. Ask her where she’d found that bourbon.

So he went down the back stairs and started pacing the hotel. The angles in this place were funny; he felt like he was walking in circles. But of course that was impossible. In the hall there were no windows, and without a grid of streets he lost himself. Would he have even found her in the maze? He wasn’t good with mazes. And the last time he’d done a floor-to-floor search for someone… Which floor was he on? Four? Five?

“How to stay alive,” he whispered to himself. “Six, seven. Go to hell or go to Heaven.”

In the stairwell, he thought he heard someone running. He called her name. Her old name. Her real name. And he ran.

***

He had all the keys, of course. The skeleton keys that opened every door. But one of the keys was missing, he realized. The key to the second floor rooms. And so he went there, no longer running, now wondering why she’d gone, what business she had leaving. He’d saved her, after all. She was safe with him. All she had to do was stay with him. Was that so hard? Staying with him?

A cold fish, she’d called him. No. That was the other one. The other other one. He could barely remember her face, now. It blurred into all the other faces, became every other woman’s face. If he saw a photo of her, now, would he recognize it? Would it even feel real, that other life? Was his real wife, his old life, any more real than the not-memories in his not-wife’s head?

She was in room 237.

The door hung open. Was this a seduction? Was the drought finally over? He hadn’t pushed her, once they got here. He’d wanted to. Knew he could make her. But he hadn’t. That had to count for something.

The room was all green and purple and black, like a haunted house ride. She was not on the bed. The pillows were still in place. But he smelled water. Felt moist heat. The bathroom lights were all on. His lips went cold. His fingers spasmed. Was she dead? Was this her last winter, too? Was this the place she’d come to end things?

“Please don’t be dead,” he murmured. “Please, honey, please don’t be dead.”

He pushed the door all the way open. A frosted plastic curtain hung half-across the bathtub. As he made his way there, her shape stretched up behind it. He thought it was her shape, at first. It was hard to tell. He couldn’t quite tell the colour of her hair. First it was night-black, and then red, and then blonde. And he knew that if he pulled the curtain back now, she would be someone else, some other woman he’d killed. Because that was who he really was. That was his magic.

She pushed the curtain aside herself. Stepped out of the tub dripping wet and white.

“I missed you,” he said, just as she said, “I’ve been thinking.”

“What have you been thinking?” His joints hurt. Why did his joints hurt? Had he really been playing for that long? He remembered playing the best he’d ever had, the notes flowing through him and down to his fingertips and onto the piano, the song rising and rising and rising until the crystals hummed with it.

“I’ve been thinking about what you did to me,” she said. “About what you made me do.”

“What?”

“Say, kill me,” she said.

“Huh?”

“Say, put your hands on my throat.

“Rach-”

“You raped me,” she said. “I tried to run away and you wouldn’t let me go. And then…”

“We made love,” he said. “I love you, for Christ’s sake, I’ve loved you since…” He raised his hands to touch her face. He couldn’t remember. He remembered the fear in his throat when he thought she was dead. He always loved her most when he thought she was gone.

“What’s wrong?” She draped her cold, wet arms around his neck. Her eyeliner was smeared. It streaked across her face like a domino mask. “Can’t you move?”

And he couldn’t. He couldn’t move. The wind sang and the winter settled in his bones.

“How old are you, really?” she asked. “How long have we been here? How long can we stay?”

He shivered. It was so warm, before. The mirrors were almost fogged. But now they were frosted at the edges, rimed with frost, as though someone had left a window open in the room, and he could not move, could not escape. Her mouth turned up. He saw the knife, now, sitting on the edge of the tub, bright and sharp as a unicorn’s horn. Why couldn’t he move?

“It’s too bad we can’t stay here,” she said. “Forever and ever and ever and ever.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

One ResponseLeave one →

  1. Paul (@princejvstin)

     /  October 31, 2014

    Nicely creepy, Madeline!

  • Madeline Ashby…

    ...is a science fiction writer, futurist, speaker, and immigrant living in Toronto. She writes a column for the Ottawa Citizen. She is represented by Anne McDermid & Associates, and Jason Richman at UTA. You can buy her books here.

    She has worked with Intel Labs, the Institute for the Future, SciFutures, Nesta, Data & Society, The Atlantic Council, the ASU Center for Science and the Imagination, and others. Her short fiction has appeared in Nature, FLURB, Tesseracts, Imaginarium, and Escape Pod. Her other essays and criticism have appeared at BoingBoing, io9, WorldChanging, Creators Project, Arcfinity, Tor.com, MISC Magazine, FutureNow, and elsewhere.

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