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Ulula cum lupis, cum quibus esse cupis

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You wake up with a crick in your neck and the stale scent of smoke on the back of your tongue.  The edge of the couch you’re lying on is digging into your shin, and you shift, sit up, shake off the sense of disorientation.  The hotel room is familiar/unfamiliar, like every hotel room in the world.  The bed is rumpled but empty. 

A note is waiting for you at the mirror:

Gone into town.  Will be back
around sundown.  Meet me in
the bar when you’re up.
-Constance

The clock on the bedside table points to three thirty-three, and the view from your window is dark, too dark to make out anything beyond your own reflection, blurred into unrecognition.  You shake the clock.  It isn’t ticking.

The bar is quiet when you get there, the stage empty, an old Peggy Lee tune on the radio.  The speakers distort the sound until the vocalist’s murmuring is joined by a low thrum of bass, rising and falling, just on the edge of hearing, settling into the base of your skull.  The chairs are empty, save one.

A man, tall and thin, curls himself around his glass.  All bones and sharp edges.  His mouth moves slightly, constantly, saying nothing you can hear, and it’s not until a drop falls to the table that you see the trails down his cheeks.  He cries like someone who doesn’t notice his own tears.  He gives no sign that he’s noticed you watching him, either.  His eyes are somewhere else as he sways with the radio, his lips mouthing the words. 

Then one day, he went away, and I thought I’d die.  But I didn’t.  And when I didn’t, I said to myself, is that all there is to love?  Is that all there is?  If that’s all there is, my friends, then let’s-

“Absinthe?”

A girl with a tray at your elbow.  You trade her a folded bill for a shot glass, tell her you’re waiting for someone, ask her if it’s always this dead around here.  The bartender drops something heavy with a thud, and the man at the other table startles.

The bar will liven up once the party downstairs is over, the absinthe girl tells you.

What party, you ask.  When you look back to the other table, the man is gone.

Signs that weren’t there when you checked in lead the way to the ballroom, through hallways and down stairs lined with portraits, oils, inscriptions in Latin, ulula cum lupis, cum quibus esse cupis.  You must have missed a sign somewhere along the way; when the hallway opens up it leaves you standing alone on a dark balcony, looking down into the light and sound of the party below.

Four couples swing their way across the floor, in the midst of a sea of faces, columns, trees lit with strings of lights.  The man from the bar is among them.  He reels against his dance partner, fingers digging furrows in his shirt, until the other wrenches away, joins a group of men hoisting one of their fellow dancers onto their shoulders, calling out for cheers.  The crowd at the edge of the dance floor watches in silence.

You scan them for a face and form you recognize, but the lighting is dim and a haze in the air blurs your vision.  One woman, you think, looks up at you.  It might be Constance; it might not. She turns away as the dancers let their companion fall back to the floor, as the revelers begin to file out of the room.

The staircase you came down is empty, but you follow the sound of music back to the bar.  Despite the absinthe girl’s promise of a livelier night, the bar is, if anything, emptier than before.  The bartender has abandoned his post, the girl has vanished.  On the far side of the room, two women crouch over their table, their heads together.  You lean against the bar and wonder if Constance has returned to your room instead.  There’s a pair of women’s slippers in the middle of the table nearest you.  They’re green and velvet and well-worn and placed there with care, and something is moving on the floor behind you.

You jerk away from the bar as a woman lurches to her feet, claws at the wood of the counter to haul herself upright, only to fall back down and vanish behind the bar.  You glance at the pair across the room; they ignore this, deep in their private negotiations.  One of them, the woman dressed in red, reaches into her purse and places a vial on the table.  You lean back over the counter.

Her hair hangs around her face, damp with sweat; her dress, if it wasn’t matted and stained, would match the slippers on the table.  Her eyes stare blankly at the ceiling.  You offer a hand, and she focuses on you, her face abruptly breaking into a smile.  And then it’s gone again.

A woman lost in her own world and negotiations over a vial.  You shouldn’t be here.  But as you turn and head for the door, there’s a clatter from behind the bar and a pair of arms wrap around you.  Her mouth moves against the back of your neck.  You can’t make out the words, and as you pull away, her arms around you loosen, slip down, clutch at your hand.

And then she’s gone.  The woman in red is at your side, wrenching her away, teeth bared.  The woman from behind the bar cringes away from her, shoots you a smile, and darts out the door.

You’re inclined to follow, but the woman in red has your wrist clenched between her hands.  She tears a piece of paper from between your fingers – until that moment, you hadn’t realized you were holding it.  A napkin.  Something scrawled across it in red, and you think you recognize your own handwriting.  She smoothes the paper out, holds it up to the light.

They try to separate us

Then there are napkin fragments on the floor and a vial before you, suspended between two long, perfectly manicured fingernails.  Is this what you’re looking for, she asks.  No, you say.  But the vial is open and you taste salt water on your tongue.

 

There’s a low thrum in the back of your head, a constant pulse, and you come back to yourself on all fours, hands and knees sunk deep into a pile of pillows in the middle of an empty room.  There are feathers clenched between your fingers, caught on your lips, on your eyelids, scattered throughout the room, and the air is hot and stifling and you are about to be ill.

You lurch to your feet, and something beneath the pillows goes crack and shifts under your heel, and then you are stumbling away and into something you hadn’t seen in the darkness, something that clatters and splashes across your hands, your clothes, your face.  The smell is heavy and thick and the room is too tight to breathe in.

A man standing in the hallway turns and watches you pass; you grab hold of him.  “Where are we?” you ask.  His expression is confused, quizzical.  Nervous.  It’s the expression of someone who doesn’t understand what they’re being asked.  You repeat the question, wondering whether he speaks English.  No answer.  Somewhere behind you, a bell rings out; somewhere above your head, footsteps, at a run.  You release him and move on.

Elevator doors open beside you, in what you’d thought was blank wall.  A maid steps out, eyes you, and hurries past, back the way you came.  You duck into the elevator.  It’s packed, nearly full, and the guests stare at you.  In this light, you can see the stains across your suit, your hands.  You say nothing, face the wall.  The bellhop presses the button for the third floor without having to be told.

A hand falls on your shoulder.  A woman leans in close.  “You’re a mess,” she says.

A touch at your other shoulder, and a man’s voice in your ear.  “A mess.”  The man from the bar.  A cigarette between his fingers.  He offers it to you.

They follow you to your room, slip inside, sit you down on the couch.  He kneels in front of you, slips your shoes off, lets them drop to the floor.  Thud, thud.  You wince at the sound. She stands at the bedside table, plays with the radio, settles at last on a Glenn Miller tune.

...When dawn came stealing up all gold and blue, to interrupt our rendezvous, I still remember how you smiled and said, was that a dream? Or was it…

She slips off her silk scarf as she sways with the tune, dislodging her hair.  Her wig.  Her hair beneath is shaved to the scalp.  She wraps the scarf around your shoulders before she disappears into the next room, and after a moment you hear water running.

He pulls you to your feet, tugging on the ends of the scarf, steering you with an arm around your shoulders through the room, past the bed, past the mirror, and you steal a glance at your own reflection, the stains covering your suit, your hands, your face, your bed.

You look away.  The bed is empty.

The bed in the mirror is occupied.

“No,” you say, and as you step back his hands tighten on the scarf around your neck.

The thrumming in your skull is back, and you are looking down at a crowd of blank faces, hollow eyes, and the rope around your neck is not silk when the ground is yanked out from beneath your feet.

 

You wake up with a crick in your neck and the stale scent of smoke on the back of your tongue.  The edge of the couch you’re lying on is digging into your shin, and you shift, sit up, shake off the sense of disorientation.  The hotel room is familiar/unfamiliar, like every hotel room in the world.  The bed is rumpled but empty. 

A note is waiting for you at the mirror.