This story is by T.V. Phelps and was part of our 2019 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It’s night. A young man stands at the front desk of a hotel, wearing the forced gaiety imposed on those employed in the service sector. He greets the only customer to enter the lobby in hours with a courteous precision.
She’s come in from the rain. She turns her head this way and that as she orients herself. With satisfaction, her eyes land on a mirror. She uses one well-manicured hand to smooth down a few face framing flyaway hairs. She then directs herself to check in, wheeling a small suitcase behind her.
“One room, please, for the night.”
“One room?” he asks.
She looks at him with clear blue eyes. Her eyebrows have been artfully crafted to frame them. “Yes, one room.” Her annoyed tone betrays that she is not used to having to repeat herself when men are concerned. “Please.”
“Our single rooms are for two guests,” replies the young man. He nods his head to emphasize the next word, “Maximum.”
“And the problem with that is…” she says and slides a credit a card and ID onto the counter.
She leans in. Her bosom is ample but has lost the blush of youth that once held it firm and ripe like the smoothest apple. She looks at him with a face filled full of plastic, purchased youth—the best that money can buy at the medical spa. “What?”
“What did you say?”
“You can not have three people in one room,” he says, indicating with a nod behind her. “You will need to rent two.” His voice is practiced at saying the same thing over and over again.
“Them.” She asks, “You see them?”
“Yes, they are standing right there.”
Her hands tap on the counter, the white frosted tips of her nails touching before her actual fingertips. She’s invested both time and money in the patina of youth that the lobby lights are assaulting. She observes the young man, observing her and replies, “They aren’t really standing right there. Or maybe they are. But the point is most people can’t see them. They really aren’t real except to me.”
“What are you talking about?” he says. “This is a reputable hotel.”
“I wasn’t suggesting otherwise.”
“Then you need two rooms.”
“Oh but I don’t. He’s the Angel of my better self,” she says pointing over her right shoulder. “And, well, he’s the Devil,” she motions to the left. “We all have these good-and-evil-life-size-salt-shaker-set following us. You, me,” she looks around but there are no other guests this late so she continues, “anyone else who might frequent this hotel. But, most people can’t see them. Theirs or anyone else’s.”
“That’s absurd,” he says, letting a real emotion sneak out of his uniform.
“Not really. Those voices we hear when we don’t know the right paths to choose have to come from somewhere.”
“But they are supposed to be tiny.”
“No, the angel and the devil. Aren’t they supposed to be standing on your shoulders?”
“In cartoons,” she laughs. “And even though these two fellows follow me every waking hour, I can not claim them as dependents and deduct them on my taxes so they certainly don’t count towards the maximum occupancy of a hotel room.” She swats to her left. “Stop it. It’s a terrible idea. We have enough tax problems already.”
“My Devil was giving me bad tax advice. Again.”
“I hear voices,” he admits, “inside my head though.”
“That would be your angel and devil. I talk back to mine. Now may I please have my room key?”
He picks up her ID, unconvinced, but scanning it, his interest picks up. “Why?”
“Why did you come here tonight?”
“Because I need a room and the conference hotel is booked.”
“No, why tonight?”
“Because the conference is tomorrow.”
He looks at her ID and says, “It has to be more than that.”
The woman stands and watches him point at her ID while she waits for her room key and for the connection he’s trying to make between his story and hers.
“My mother is sick. She hasn’t been well in ages. Won’t listen to the fancy doctors. She suffers terribly. Maybe it’s her own fault from the hard living but now there’s no medicine to make it better. My mother and you are exactly the same age—same birth month, same day and same year,” he explains, pounding on her driver’s license with his index finger as if this coincidence has cosmic importance.
“Your mother and I are the same age.” She winces as if it hit. Her eyes glance to the mirror for reassurance, but the reality is she is old enough to be the mother of this young man. Her smile is no longer winsome. The bruise to her ego festers into every fine line on her face.
The young man, oblivious to the pained vain creature before him, continues, “Last night I came home and she was passed out. She mixes those expensive pills with liquor. She was just laying there and…. and I thought she doesn’t deserve this. I don’t deserve this. I could just…”
“Put a pillow over her face. Give her too many pills. Stop taking her to the fancy doctors and the rehab that she won’t do.”
“And what do those voices in your head say,” she asks.
He looks sheepish. Lost. His weight shifts from foot to foot.
She nods her head in understanding. “You think that’s your Devil goading you to do something selfish, encouraging you to abandon or hurt your mother. To speed her inevitable demise so that in ending her life, you can begin yours,” she says.
He nods, pained patches of red spread across his cheeks.
“You poor pup with so much mercy in your heart,” she reaches her hand out towards his, a bangle of bracelets slithers around her bony wrist. “That’s not your Devil beckoning, but your Angel calling.”
She takes her ID and credit card from the counter. The sound of the wheels of her suitcase mix with the click of her heels as she crosses the lobby. Keycard in hand, she high fives the devil to her left, leaving the young man at the front desk with just a few minutes left on his shift.