From the mind of Megan Arkenberg

August 11, 2014

The Middle Floor

Posted by Megan Arkenberg with No comments
First published in Aoife's Kiss #25, June 2008. Full story behind cut.

* * *

“How long have you been here?”

In the lobby of any other hotel, it would have been a rude thing to ask, and the slight tremor in her fingers as she curled them over the chair arm said she knew it. I looked up from my cold mug of Earl Grey and raised an eyebrow.

“Awhile,” I said softly. “Sixteen, almost seventeen. And you?”

Her fingers clenched a little tighter. “Not very long,” she said, offering a weak smile. “Not even one. Not even—”

“You’re new.” Of course she was. Even the gray streaked across her cheekbones seemed painted-on. “That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? You want to know why.”

“I don’t…” she began. Little white teeth flitted along her bottom lip. “I don’t think…they told me I couldn’t ask.”

“They don’t like to say, of course.” I pulled the chair from under her grasp and gestured to the cushion. “Come, sit down. Don’t mind the others if they stare; they aren’t used to seeing your sort talking to mine, that’s all.”

“They say you’ve been here long. That you can explain things to me.”

I sipped my tea and examined her over the rim of my cup. She looked decidedly out of place, with her faded burgundy house dress and untidy braids; there was something thin about her, as if she didn’t have enough skin to stretch across her high cheekbones and long, crooked fingers. She stood rigidly by the arm of her chair, only the slightest fold of her skirt clinging to the green velvet cushion like a bloodstain.
“I’m due for a promotion any dec…any day now,” I said, setting my mug on the coffee table between us.
Her eyes widened. “Promotion? To an upper floor, you mean?”
“To a room, if I’m lucky.” I sighed again and pointed to the chair. “Please sit down. It hurts my neck to stare up at you.”
“Oh!” She dropped onto the seat with a small gasp. “I didn’t know.”
“It’s only a figure of speech.” Beneath the gray, her cheeks flushed to the color of her dress. I covered my smile with another sip of tea.  “Well, you are new, aren’t you? They always send the newest ones to me—the ones they’re afraid of. But I haven’t spoken to your sort in a long, long time. It hasn’t taken you long to get over the…the shock, I see. Why is that?”
She stared at her hands where they lay folded in her lap. The nails, I noted, were pared unevenly, as if she had tried to grow them longer some time ago. “I did it myself.”
She shrugged and said nothing.
The smell of bergamot was becoming nauseating—or as close to nauseating as I could find it. I finished the tea in one swallow and set the mug on the floor beside my chair. A maid would come around for it in a moment or two. “I understand that this might not be easy,” I said. “But I can’t help you make sense of it if you won’t talk to me. Shall we start with the commonplace? How about your name?”
“Lizzie,” she whispered.
“Short for Elizabeth?”
She nodded, seeming to melt into her chair as a grave-faced maid appeared at my side and lifted my mug from the floor.
“I imagine you’ll be needing another cup sometime soon?” the maid said, glancing wearily at Lizzie. 

I shook my head, gesturing for her to go. She vanished in a flounce of apron and black skirts. When I turned back to Lizzie, I found her once again nibbling her bottom lip. From the raw red patches under her teeth, I gathered it was a bad habit. “What do you think of the place?” I asked, gesturing to the lobby with a flick of my wrist.
“It’s nice.” Her eyes slid across the delicate couches and armchairs, the soft rugs, the stucco molding on the walls, finally coming to rest on the spot of ceiling directly above our heads. “It’s the sort of place that ought to have skylights, isn’t it?”
“Ought to, but doesn’t. Not many windows, either. It’s the first thing most people notice.”
She lowered her eyes. As if for the first time—though I had seen it from the moment she first spoke—I noticed the small ring on her left hand. It must have been difficult to force over her crooked knuckle.
“What was your husband like, Elizabeth?”
“He was…hard to explain.”
“Cruel?” I asked, lowering my voice.
“No.” She shook her head. “He was a coward.”
“But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t cruel, does it?”
“He wasn’t.”
“He wasn’t the reason, then?”
She shook her head again.
I leaned back in my chair, wishing I still had a bit of Earl Grey to sip. Almost instantly the maid was at my shoulder, holding out a steaming mug on a silver tray. I nodded my thanks and cupped it in my hands as she disappeared into the maze of armchairs.
“What did your husband do to you?” I asked.
“Oh, he didn’t do anything to me.” She said it simply, almost placidly. It came out smoother than her own name. “He thought about it, I suppose. He did a lot of thinking, especially after…after…”
“After what?”

“After her.” The color was back in her cheeks, like two streaks of ill-applied rogue. “Oh, God, the way he looked at me! I thought he was going to...” She pressed a hand along the ridge of her cheekbone.
“But he didn’t hit you.”
“No,” she said after a moment. “No, he didn’t. I told you he was a coward.”
For the first time, I noticed the small crowd clustered around the parlor table a small distance away.  All of them were new—not quite so new as Lizzie—but new enough that they hadn’t learned to hide their interest. I glared at them over the rim of my teacup until they dispersed.
“So who was she?”
“I didn’t really know then. I don’t think I ever learned.”
“What did she look like?”
She raised her eyes until she was staring directly over my shoulder. “Tall,” she said. “Not so thin as me—I’m too thin, even he always said it—but slender. Her hair was…” She gestured with her hands at about waist length. “Not quite blonde, not quite brown. It always smelled like lavender. Our bed smelled like lavender for days after. He didn’t notice it at first. Lena did.”
“My daughter, Marilena.” Something like genuine warmth flickered in her eyes for a moment. “She’s only six, but she’s bright for her age…I brought her to my sister’s before it happened. I didn’t want to leave her with him.”
“Before what happened?”
“Before I came here.”
I nodded in a way I hoped was reassuring. “Are you ready to talk about why?”
“No.”  She ran her tongue over her lips, wincing as it brushed the raw places.
I pushed my mug to her end of the coffee table. “Tea?”
“No, thank you.”
“They have everything here. You could take a glass of Bordeaux if you wanted to.”
She waved her hand dismissively. “I’m fine.”

She looked so fragile, like some child’s ill-used porcelain doll. I stood and walked around to the side of her chair. Her hair hung in a handful of tangled, uneven braids. In the lobby of any other hotel, it would have been rude for me to touch it; but not here. I reached for the one closest to me and began unplaiting it.
“You say your husband was a coward. Why is that?”
  Lizzie shook her head, nearly pulling her hair from my grasp. I began to release it, but she caught my hand in hers and gestured for me to continue.
“You didn’t always hate him, did you?”
“I don’t think I ever hated him,” she said slowly. “It was a long time before I saw him for what he was. By then…”
“By then, there wasn’t much left of me for him to love.”
The first braid was gone; her hair lay smooth across the dull red shoulder of her dress, like a line of ink. I paused to admire it for a moment before starting on the next one. “What made you love him in the first place?”
A smile flickered across her lips. “A cowardly man may write some brave things.”
“He was a writer, then?”
“A poet.” The smile vanished. “Not a very good one, either. Of course, I don’t suppose I made a perfect subject.” The hard set of her jaw told me she wasn’t looking for reassurance, so I stayed silent. “He always wrote about me, even at the end. I thought it was sweet at first, but now I know better. He lacked imagination.”
“Then what made his writing brave?”
“He wrote his thoughts. His true thoughts; not the ones he had because all poets had them. When he wrote about death, he wrote about fearing it; he never wrote about beauty or love. The poems he wrote for me were simple descriptions, really. Not beautiful, perhaps, but true.”
“And you preferred truth?”
“When I was younger, yes. It was harder to find. But after her…after her, I preferred beauty.”

The second braid was gone. I was just wishing I had a brush to smooth it out when I noticed one on the end table behind me. I noted it with a small shrug and moved on to the third plait. “What made your husband a coward, Elizabeth?”
She took the hairbrush from the end table and studied her reflection in the silver back. A lock of hair hung across her forehead, and I brushed it back with my thumb. Her skin was like ice against my hand.
“He stayed when he should have gone,” she said. “Or when he should have made me leave. Damn it!” She flung the brush away from her. “I didn’t want his forgiveness! He was no saint! After all I’d done for him, all I’d given up…he owed me that much, didn’t he? He owed me his anger!”
She leapt to her feet, pulling her hair from my grasp. The strands hung loose around her vicious, contorted face like snakes around the eyes of a gorgon.
“I loved her!” She extended her hands, her cold, work-worn hands, almost penitently. “I loved her and he knew it! He could smell the lavender on his pillow when he came home from work. His lips couldn’t brush mine without making me think of hers, he couldn’t trail his fingers through my hair without me thinking of how hers felt! He should have left. He should have set me free—set both of us free! But he was afraid.”
All at once, the anger seemed to flow out of her. She sank to her knees beside the chair, resting her head on the cushion.
“I wasn’t afraid. Once she left…once he refused to leave…I knew there wasn’t anything there for me. I wasn’t afraid of Hell.” She took a deep, shuddering breath and pressed her eyes closed. “I took Lena to my sister’s house. She’s a good woman, my sister…always loved Lena…has four or five children of her own, I can’t remember now. I said Lena needed taking care of, that I was going away for a while. I stayed until bed time. The bed in the guest room was so big, it seemed to swallow her up...Lena was always small. I tucked her in, kissed her forehead, her dark hair. Then I went home.”
Her voice grew stronger. “My husband was in bed. I never knew if he was asleep or not. His eyes were closed. I went in and kissed his lips, his forehead, his ink-stained fingers. Then I went into the bathroom. There was a bottle of sleeping pills on the counter. I put on a bit of lavender perfume…just a dab on each wrist…and then I took them. All of them. It was hard to swallow after a while. I was so tired, and the lavender made me sleepy…I had some strength left, just enough to turn out the light. I didn’t want the light to wake him. And then I died.”
I knelt down beside her, lifted the brush from where she had thrown it, and began to smooth her hair.

“This isn’t…this isn’t all there is, is it?” she asked after a moment. “He was right in the end.”
I nodded and continued brushing.
“I won’t be here forever. A long time, maybe…sixteen decades, or sixteen centuries. He’ll come through here, and Lena will, and maybe she will…and I will wait. I won’t speak to them. I won’t watch them from across the room. I will wait, and when we meet again, in the other place…”
 Her voice trailed off. She was falling asleep.
I loosened the last of her braids. Her hair was lovely; it didn’t take a poet to see that. In sleep, even her lips looked smoother. I began to understand her anger at her husband, at least a little bit. She wasn’t a woman who belonged on a middle floor.
I carried her to a couch and lay her down with the silver hairbrush beside her. She would have more questions when she woke, but I would not be there to answer them. She would find the answers herself; and as for that, there would be time enough.
For now, I let her sleep. 


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