Room 217

K. S. Anthony

© Copyright 2003 by K. S. Anthony


Photo of a giant Santa Claus figure.

When he woke, it was raining outside and Harry was tired.

He lit a cigarette, something he hadn't done in a long time, and stared out the hotel window. Room 217. The same room every Christmas Eve. It had been his tradition before he met Christie, in the dark days of Scotch and blackouts. And now‚€¶there he was again. It was quiet there, though the streets below were covered in an ocean of asphalt, rain and pushy shoppers. Quiet. He didn't bother putting the cigarette to his lips. Instead he watched it burn down in the ashtray, orange and glowing, like the embers of a dying log in a fireplace. Yes. A fireplace. For a minute he longed for the sweet, resinous smell of hickory and the tiny glasses of Benedictine his father would pour for the both of them on Christmas Eve when they were still speaking. He looked further back into his mind. He remembered the feeling of his mother's hand grasping his as they'd wade through the crowds to the department stores and the chocolate milkshakes and grilled cheese sandwiches they'd have at Woolworth's at the end of the day. He could see the giant fiberglass Santa Claus standing looming and jolly, that had appeared overnight in the shopping center parking lot with the spectacularly decorated trees that flanked him, each branch covered in glittering metallic ornaments, and gleaming hues of emerald, sapphire and ruby lights, all dancing in time to the piped in music. That was years ago. He closed his eyes tight and pushed the memory away. Harry extinguished the cigarette, unconsciously rubbing his fingers together to get the nicotine smell off. He glanced over his shoulder at Lorraine, who still lay beneath the layers of hotel blankets. He liked looking at her. He always thought she looked angelic and then he'd think how trite that sounded. But he didn't care. She did look angelic. Like his mother did when she'd wake him after coming home from work with a surprise for him tucked away in her purse. A new toy. A book. Something to take away the pain of her being gone all day. A reward for being such a brave soldier. He never felt brave. Not in growing up wondering when she'd be home, with that sick feeling in his stomach burning like a fever as he tried to watch cartoons. He never felt brave on the job, not even with body armor and his duty weapon strapped to his side. Not at his mother's funeral after her suicide in room 217 of the St. Francis Hotel. No. He never felt anything but afraid and sick to his stomach and that fucking badge and gun were just another way of holding back the ghosts that haunted him. Just like the toys that his mother brought him. Lorraine knew about his ghosts and never said anything to him about them. That was part of why he loved her. She knew and that was enough. Waking up to her was enough. Being near her was enough. It had to be. She was all that he had left. That and the goddamn memories. And the fear.

He poured himself a Scotch and took a Valium, staring outside at the rain darkening Powell Street and the umbrellas floating below. He raised a toast to them, but couldn' t think of anything to say. He set the glass down, staring into the amber liquid. For the first time in six years, he drank. He poured another glass, and then drank again. The dark days had returned with fury and swiftness and Harry's bottled demons were unleashed. He wanted to call Christie, just to hear her voice. Maybe she'd tell him to come home. Maybe she'd say, "Come home already, Harry, It's Christmas Eve.  I've missed you so much."   Maybe she'd have dinner all ready for him and they'd eat, drink too much wine and laugh and make love and fall asleep on the couch in each other's arms. He remembered the way she smelled like vanilla and the first time he saw her and how she smiled at him. He picked up the phone and started to dial, then hung up. He knew damn well that there'd be a long silence the minute she heard his voice. It had been months since they last spoke. She needed some time away. He left it at that. And she never called him again. He looked back over at Lorraine. He felt sick again.

What was it?

Why so haunted, Harry? All the things you're afraid of have happened already. Why so haunted? He didn't know. All he knew was that Room 217 made sense and that, contrary to Robert Frost, home was not a place where, when you went there, they had to take you in. No. It was a place that, when you went there, your wife could slam the door in your face. Not that he had tried. He assumed that "I don't want to see you" meant exactly that. Just like the words "suspended pending ongoing investigation of alleged misconduct."

He drank again and the world began to blur.

She had not meant for Harry to disappear off the face of the Earth. She had not meant for Harry to simply get up and walk out of the home they shared in the middle of a fight and leave and not come back. She had not. She really, really, really didn't and now it was Christmas Eve and she hadn't known where her husband was for months or why he hadn't called any of his friends or why he hadn't called her. She had waited by the phone. She had tried drowning herself in her work. She had cried. She had prayed. She had called everyone she knew and everyone he knew. She had apologized to him in her head a thousand times over for not paying attention to the nightmares and for calling him a big baby when he told her he thought he was losing his mind. But none of that filled his absence. And none of it made him call. And the memories were swift and terrible when she reviewed them. Time away did not mean gone forever. Did it?

And then the phone rang and Harry's brother told Christie about room 217 and why Harry never talked about their mother.

Harry looked at the framed picture of his wife and smiled. He raised it gently to his lips and kissed it, then slowly stood up and walked over to the bed where Lorraine lay. He picked her up. A Smith and Wesson 5906 with a department issued 15 round magazine loaded with jacketed hollow points, Lorraine was Harry's last resort in the use of force continuum and Harry meant to force the nightmares to end.

Christie dialed the number to the St. Francis. Please hold for the next operator. For some reason, she felt a burning knot in her stomach and worried for her husband.

Harry cradled the gun in his hands, admiring the brushed steel of the slide as he drew it back and released it, slamming a round into the chamber. Outside, the rain came down harder and the daylight disappeared.

"St. Francis Hotel, how may I direct your call?"

"Room 217, please." Christie's heart was throbbing. Something seemed very, very wrong.

"One moment while I connect you." Silence. An interminable pause. "I'm sorry, ma'am, the line is busy." Christie could feel the fire coming up through her throat.

"Could you try again, please?"

"Yes ma'am, one moment."

Harry lifted the pistol to his head, holding it to his temple. The steady drumbeat of rain against his window urged him on and, rather than breaking the silence, seemed to build on it; seemed to emphasize it, seemed to deepen it. March on, it seemed to say. Forward. He looked again at his wife's picture and, smiling, cocked the hammer. And then the goddamn beeping noise caught his attention. The phone was off the hook. Fuck. He put it back on the hook, then, facing his reflection in the window, stood up with his gun at his head. March on. Forward to oblivion and a shallow grave.

"I'm very sorry ma'am. It's still busy. You might try again later."

"Would you please just try it again? Please?"

There was something in the woman's voice that made Caroline Spring, stuck working the switchboard on Christmas Eve, try room 217 again. And this time it rang.

Harry had begun to apply pressure on the trigger when the phone rang. He slowly let up the trigger slack and it rang again. Jesus Christ. He kept the pistol pointed at his head as he picked up the handset.

"What?" There was a long silence. "What? Hello?"

There was sobbing on the other end. "Come home, sweetie. I'm so sorry."

The phone went dead.

When he awoke, dawn was breaking outside and Harry was tired. He kissed his wife, something he had not done in a long time, looked out the window and watched the sun come up in the milky January sky. Christie stirred and pulled him close, and for once, the memories did not bother him as he lay in the quiet peace of his wife's loving arms while Lorraine slept in a shallow grave in the back yard.

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