Horror & Dark Fantasy

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Fiction

The Blue Room

When Amada first sees the hotel, she feels her luck has changed at last. One moment she is trudging beneath the palm trees and café umbrellas of Miami’s Ocean Drive and the next it is upon her: an imposing three-story building in the old art deco style, its white façade gleaming in the late-afternoon sun.

Amada stops in the middle of the busy sidewalk, shifting from one sore foot to the other, and stares up at the hotel. For a moment she imagines that the hotel—with its trim hanging over the windows like brows over heavy-lidded eyes, its ziggurat motifs yawning like so many open mouths—is staring back. Amada hikes her purse higher on her shoulder and blinks the sweat from her eyes, and the hotel is just a hotel once more.

She has spent the past seven hours going from hotel to hotel, filling out one application after another. A cousin told her the hotels in South Beach always have work, but so far her search has turned up only raised eyebrows at her four years of missing work history and polite we’ll let you knows. But Amada needs a job, and soon. She has just moved as far from Tommy as she can get without leaving Miami altogether: from Homestead City to a tiny studio in Allapattah, borrowing from her mother to cover first and last month’s rent. Now she is exhausted, the pads of her feet prickly and painful. She applied thick layers of foundation over the bruises on her neck this morning, but the makeup keeps sweating off. Twice now, she’s had to duck into a bathroom to reapply it. Her throat burns whenever she swallows, and the edges of her vision keep clouding. She doesn’t know if this is because of what happened two nights ago with Tommy or because of her mounting fear that she has made a huge mistake.

Still—Amada thinks, as she slips through the revolving doors and into the lobby’s welcome chill—something about this place feels different. Special.

• • • •

The hotel manager is a short man whose hands keep up a constant, flurrying motion about his pot-bellied self: brushing crumbs off his peach polo, adjusting the face of his too-large watch whenever it makes its inevitable descent to the underside of his wrist. He scans her application, passing over the last four, jobless years without comment.

“Another one of my maids quit on me last week,” he says. “Didn’t even hand in her uniform.” He looks Amada up and down. “All these girls, they come, they go. What makes you different?”

Amada has to stop herself from stroking her throat to check if the makeup is still there. What makes her different? She gazes at the hotel’s high ceilings, its soft, leaf-patterned carpet. The hushed stillness reminds her of a church. It makes her feel safe. Welcome. “I like this place. And when I like something, I stay.”

“When can you start?” he asks.

Right now, Amada thinks. Seven hours ago. “Tomorrow,” she says.

• • • •

When Amada arrives the next morning, Mr. Patterson hands her a freshly pressed uniform to wear until her personalized one arrives. He gives her a tour of the hotel, a small, boutique affair with a chic décor that its brochures call “tropical art deco.” It only has twenty-one rooms, seven per floor. The first two floors have been redone in a sleek modern style, with white walls accented by ornate gold mirrors and artwork in pastels and earth tones. But the top floor hasn’t been renovated in decades; each of its rooms is done up in a different color of the rainbow.

At the end of the third-floor corridor, outside the last room, Mr. Patterson fishes a card out of the top pocket of his polo and hands it to Amada. “This is your master key card. You can use it to get into every room. Except the blue room.” He jerks his head toward the door, which bears the number 307. “The sprinklers in there are broken and it’s not up to code. I heard the owners are planning some kind of renovation, but right now they’re just using it for storage. No guests allowed, no staff—not even me.”

Amada shrugs. What’s one locked door compared to a whole hotel? “Okay.” She slips the smooth, heavy key card into her pocket, remembering how Tommy kept all their keys on a carabiner clipped to his jeans. Every morning, when he left for work, he locked the front door behind him. Now, as Mr. Patterson leads her back to the elevator, she fingers the key card’s laminated edges, picturing a multitude of doors swinging open at her touch.

• • • •

There are six other maids at the hotel, but Amada takes an immediate liking to Lucinda (“call me Lucy”), who shares many of Amada’s shifts.

On her third day, she and Lucy are taking their break in the alleyway behind the hotel. Amada wasn’t much of a smoker before, but since being here she’s started smoking more. She likes the way the summer air lands on her skin, thick and sticky, the moment she steps outside the air-conditioned hotel and into the narrow back street, slotted like a secret between the rear of the hotel and a parking deck. She is less fond of the delivery drivers, whose trucks rumble up the alleyway every ten minutes or so, forcing Amada and Lucy to step back into the gutter as the drivers let loose a stream of inquiries and lewd jokes—though Lucy responds to the drivers with filthy vigor, seeming to draw energy from these encounters. Every place Amada has ever worked has had a spot like this, grimy and tucked out of sight, where she can breathe and feel like herself.

Lucy is playing with a heavy-looking brass Zippo lighter, flicking it open and shut with her red acrylic nails. Her uniform is perfectly tailored to her body. Amada notes the way it hugs her chest, then glances down at her own uniform, which balloons out at the waist and hips.

“There’s a cheap tailor down the street,” Lucy says. Amada blushes, embarrassed that Lucy noticed her looking. “She’ll do the waist for, like, ten bucks. Worth it if you’re sticking around.”

“Are you sticking around?”

“Yeah,” Lucy says. “Gotta pay rent. I’ll stay until I find something better.”

Amada tucks her hair behind her ear and tries not to think about the fact that her own rent is due in less than two weeks. “So what’s Mr. Patterson like to work for, anyway?”

Mister Patterson,” Lucy says, in a mocking singsong, and Amada feels stung. But then she grins at Amada, clenching her cigarette between her teeth as she pulls up the waist of her pantyhose with a faint snapping sound. “I’m just giving you a hard time. Patterson’s all right. Always cuts me slack when I have to miss a shift to take care of personal business.”

Amada is curious about Lucy’s personal business, but the guarded way in which she stares off into space makes Amada change the subject. “So what’s up with that blue room? It’s under construction or something, right? You ever been inside?”

“No one really knows.” Lucy traces a thumb over the lighter, which is engraved with leaves and vines intertwined with her initials, LT. “I’ve heard all sorts of things. I even heard the owners hid a bunch of cocaine in there.”

“Why would anyone keep cocaine in some random hotel room?”

“That’s the thing,” Lucy whispers, leaning so close that Amada can feel her breath against her ear. Beneath the cigarette smoke, she smells like hairspray and mints. “No one knows what the hell is going on in that room, but one day, I’m gonna find out.”

• • • •

Amada works weekdays and weekends. The physicality of the work helps keep her mind off Tommy, and Patterson gives her all the shifts Lucy misses. She scrubs toilets, she changes beds. When she gets home, her bones ache and she falls asleep as soon as she climbs into bed. She ignores Tommy’s phone calls, she deletes his texts. Even the ones in which he promises to find her, wherever she is, and bring her home.

Instead, she is grateful for the routine: punch card, a quick coffee in the breakroom, then the large, trundling cleaning cart filled with freshly laundered towels, toiletries, and cleaning supplies. She likes coming to work, even though she spends most of her days alone. There’s something about the feeling she gets when she’s wheeling her cart down the hallways, the way the carpet seems to cradle her feet. When she opens her locker, she is greeted by the faint smell of roses. When she hums an old Benny Moré song her mother used to play, it pipes from the speakers in the breakroom the next morning. When she hurries into her first room of the day, late for her shift and sweating through her uniform, the A/C clicks on with an icy whoosh.

One morning, wheeling her cart out of the elevator, she almost bumps into a guest, an elderly white man dressed in golfing attire. Smiling, he steps back and holds the door open with ostentatious chivalry. She moves past him, murmuring her thanks. As she does so, his hand brushes her hip. The contact makes her jump, but she keeps moving forward, telling herself it was an accident. A moment later, his hand skimming over her butt proves otherwise. Amada shoves her cart out of the elevator and whirls around to face him.

Before she can say anything, the elevator doors slam shut on the hand that is still holding open the door. The man howls, struggling to pull his fingers free.

Amada forces a laugh. “Maybe that’s a sign you should keep your hands to yourself.”

He glares at her, cradling his fingers in his uninjured hand, then stumbles toward the stairwell.

Triumphant and a little shaken, Amada turns and wheels her cart away. Halfway down the hall, the back of her neck prickles. She spins around, but the hallway is empty.

• • • •

Tommy calls Amada’s phone so much over the next couple weeks that she blocks him. Then he moves on to her family. Soon her mother and sister and cousins are all calling her, too.

“Why won’t you give him another chance?” her mother asks. “He was so good to you.”

“At least call him back,” her sister says, “so he’ll stop bugging me.”

Tommy finds her on every one of her social media platforms, sends her messages demanding to know where she has moved to. I just want to talk, he says. I’m so sorry.

Alone in her apartment, Amada can’t sleep. She takes to watching TV on her couch until her head droops, startling awake at the sudden burst of an explosion or a laugh track.

One day, on her way past the hotel kitchen, she is stopped by Jorge, one of the delivery guys who keeps the hotel supplied with fresh fruit. Over the past couple weeks, he and Amada have been exchanging glances that simultaneously thrill and terrify her.

“You wanna grab something to eat after work sometime?” he asks.

Amada flushes, then summons Lucy in her head. She sticks her hip out to one side. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“If you don’t want to,” he murmurs, “you should just say so.”

Up close, Amada can see that he missed a spot while shaving, on the right side of his jaw. She lowers her voice too. “I didn’t say that.”

“So are you saying yes?”

“No.” Laughing, she grabs her cleaning cart and leaves.

When she walks into the next room on her schedule, it is freezing. Despite it being the late afternoon, the lights are off and the shades are drawn. Amada shivers. Just then, her phone vibrates. It’s a text from an unknown number—which means it’s from Tommy. I hear you’re working in South Beach now. That true?

Amada sits on the bed, suddenly exhausted. She passes a hand across one of the satiny pillows, then lays her cheek against it. What would it be like to be a guest here? To not have to get up at five every morning; to not jump at the sound of footsteps outside her apartment door? Her eyelids are so heavy. She’ll just close her eyes for ten seconds. She’ll just . . .

• • • •

Amada awakens gasping for breath.

She tries to sit up, but there is something wrapped around her neck that refuses to let go. She looks around wildly, but the room is empty. She claws at the thing throttling her, but she can’t wedge her fingers between it and the skin of her neck, can’t even draw breath, can’t think anything except not again, please, not again as the edges of her vision dim and a faint buzzing fills her ears.

Then, just as quickly as it came, the sensation eases. Air rushes into her lungs. Amada sits up, wheezing, her eyes watering. She tears off the thing and looks down.

A sheet.

Amada pats her neck, feeling the grooves where the fabric cut into her. It must have wrapped around her neck while she slept. The buzzing in her ears has faded. She takes deep breaths, waits for her heart to settle.

“Just a sheet.” Her voice comes out a nervous croak that the room swallows. That’s what you get for sleeping on the job, she thinks. She is suddenly, obscurely angry at herself. That’s what you get for thinking you’re safe.

• • • •

That night, when she looks in the bathroom mirror, faint purple bruises bisect the skin of her neck. She takes out her phone and scrolls through Tommy’s recent messages.

I’ve changed, Amada. Just let me show you.

It is possible. Look how much she has changed in the last couple of weeks—echoing Lucy’s loudness, smoking, living alone. And the truth is, she misses him: misses the solidity of his arm across her chest at night, the way he threw off all the sheets by morning as if nothing could contain him.

The sheets. Amada shudders as she remembers the pressure of them on her throat. The feeling she’d gotten when she walked into the room with its shades drawn, as if the room itself were angry at her. She thinks of Tommy’s text this afternoon. I hear you’re working in South Beach now. That true?

She picks up her phone and sends him the first message since she left. What’s it to you?

His reply comes instantly. I miss you so much.

Amada feels a twinge of pleasure. She leaves her phone charging face-down on the rim of the bathroom sink and goes to bed, pushing the incident from this afternoon out of her head. But she sleeps on the couch that night, as far from the bed as she can get.

• • • •

Amada tells no one about the sheets—she realizes how it would sound. Instead she spends her lunchbreaks on the ancient PC in the breakroom, sending out job applications. When she has to change the beds, she does so with a ginger, skittish touch.

The bruises have almost faded when Lucy asks, “What’s up with your neck?”

“Nothing,” Amada says. “Nothing,” she repeats, when she sees Lucy still looking. They are in the supply room loading up their cleaning carts. Amada grabs some rolls of toilet paper and stacks them in her cart. “So—got any more blue room theories?”

“Yeah,” Lucy says, leaning over so her gold pendants clink against her cleaning cart. “Patterson’s banging his mistress in there.”

Amada considers this for a moment. Patterson really doesn’t seem like the type. Then again—is she a competent judge of character?

“Not hating, just saying,” Lucy sings. She gives Amada an exaggerated wink and wheels her cart away.

Coming out of the supply room, Amada sees Jorge. He smiles and gives a furtive wave. She’s about to respond when she remembers the sheets wrapped around her neck. Best not to make trouble, she thinks, although she is not sure what she means by this or where the trouble would come from. She pushes her cart past Jorge without speaking, keeping her eyes trained on her hands so she won’t see the hurt on his face.

• • • •

On her third week, Amada hears an erratic banging as she’s passing the blue room. She stops and looks around. The hallway is empty. Creeping to the door, she presses her ear against it. Inside, a syrupy love song is playing at full volume. Faintly, beneath the music, Amada can hear hammering. They must have started the renovation, she decides, pushing her cart onwards. And someone on the crew really likes Al Green.

Another day, she sees a bluish, flickering light beneath the door, as if someone is watching television with the lights off. She approaches the door and listens, but there is no sound other than the elevator opening down the hall.

More and more, Amada gets the feeling that she is being watched. Sometimes, when she is walking down the hallways late at night, the walls seem to narrow and pulse.

“Does this place ever feel weird to you?” she asks Lucy. They’re almost done cleaning the yellow room, which has a feature wall of gold art deco wallpaper and a large bed with a cheerful, butter-yellow bedspread. It’s a happy, sunny room, and it has always been Amada’s favorite.

Lucy pauses in her wiping down of the desk. “What do you mean?” Her voice is cautious in a way Amada has never heard before.

“I mean, do you ever feel like . . . maybe someone’s watching you?” As soon as the words leave her mouth, Amada regrets them. She sounds crazy.

Lucy replaces the notepad, positioning it in the middle of the desk with uncharacteristic care. “All I know,” she murmurs, so softly that Amada has to lean in close to hear her, “is that I’m getting the hell out of here as soon as I save up enough money. Or—” she smiles, a small, furtive movement that is all her own “—as soon as I find some.”

“Yeah,” Amada says. Without quite knowing why, she darts a rebellious glance up at the ceiling. “Yeah, me too.”

They part ways, and Amada pushes her cleaning cart toward the elevator. The hallway feels narrower than usual, the lights overhead dimmer. She picks up her pace, resisting the urge to look over her shoulder. No one is ever there.

The elevator opens as soon as she presses the button and she shoves her cart inside, eager to get out of that dark and narrow corridor. The doors close behind her with a snap. Amada presses the lobby button, but the elevator doesn’t respond.

She tries again. The elevator doesn’t move—only vibrates slightly as Amada, worried now, mashes all the buttons at random.

Then the elevator car lurches and drops, toppling the supply cart and sending cleaning supplies flying through the air. Amada screams and clings to the horizontal elevator bar, preparing for the bone-shattering impact of the elevator hitting bottom. Instead, it eases to a stop, then shoots up again. This time, the force of the movement tears her fingers from the bar. She smashes into the opposite wall, crumpling against the wood paneling. Her ankle bends as she lands on it, sending pain spiking up her leg.

The elevator plummets again, then convulses to a stop. The doors open on the gleaming lobby. Amada limp-runs out, leaving the cart and its scattered cleaning supplies. Through the big front windows, she can see the street, the sun glinting off parked cars. She stumbles into the revolving doors and finds herself turning and turning and turning because the doors won’t release her. Instead, they spit her back into the lobby, where she slams into Patterson. He grips her by the shoulders and says her name over and over.

“I can’t get out,” Amada sobs. “I can’t get out.”

“What do you mean?” Patterson puts an arm around her and walks her toward a door with a push handle. It opens easily. “Here you go,” he says gently, and follows her out into the hot Miami sun.

Amada bends at the waist and puts her hands on her knees. “I quit,” she says between gasping sobs.

“Don’t do anything you’ll regret.” Patterson’s voice isn’t unkind. He checks his watch. “Your shift’s over in half an hour. Why don’t you go home and get some rest? Take the weekend off. Come back on Monday feeling nice and fresh.”

“The hotel—” Amada stops. What was she even going to say? That the hotel is alive? That it hates her?

“What?”

“I can’t—” Amada’s breath hitches. “I can’t keep working here.”

Patterson sighs. “Look, I don’t know what’s going on with you today, but you’re a good worker. I want to keep you. I’ll even give you more shifts.”

Right now, Amada’s paycheck barely covers her living expenses. It would be stupid to pass up more shifts. Besides—where else does she have to go? She gathers her purse from the breakroom, then leaves through the back entrance, limping on her sore ankle. As she leans against the heavy steel fire door, she feels a crunchy resistance. The door doesn’t budge.

Heart fluttering, Amada stands back, then pushes again. This time the door releases easily, letting her out into the muggy afternoon.

• • • •

Amada spends much of the weekend at the library. In between filling out job applications, she Googles articles about elevator failures. Snapped cables. Worn-out brakes. The more she reads, the more she is convinced that what happened to her was a glitch. With every application she submits, her confidence grows. Something will come through. She’ll be out of that place any day now.

When she returns on Monday, she learns Lucy has missed both of her weekend shifts, presumably because she is off taking care of her “personal business.”

“Typical,” Patterson says, shaking his head.

Amada texts Lucy, but she doesn’t reply.

“Yeah, well,” a maid named Natalie says as they stock up their carts, “it is Lucy.”

When Amada walks down the hotel’s halls, the air smells faintly of roses. The rooms she cleans are always the perfect temperature, and the speakers pipe love songs by Benny Moré and Celia Cruz. Even so, she finds herself constantly whipping her head around. No one is ever there.

A couple days later, Amada is coming out of the breakroom into the main lobby when she stops in her tracks: Tommy is walking through the main doors of the hotel with a takeout bag of Chipotle in his hand.

She withdraws around the corner, feeling like she is going to vomit. She messaged him back a few times, sure. But that doesn’t mean she is ready to see him. She stares down at her hands, which have begun to shake. She has been so careful. How did he find her?

Patterson is at the front desk. Amada hears Tommy say, “My name is Tommy Gutierrez. I’m here for my wife, Amada Gutierrez? She forgot her lunch.” Amada shivers. How like Tommy, to pretend that they’re married, that he shares her last name.

“Amada?” Patterson says. “I think she’s on break. Hang on.”

She hears him walking toward the room she just left. When he rounds the corner, he will see her. Looking around in panic, Amada darts into the nearest stairwell.

There is the sound of the door to the breakroom opening and swinging shut, then Patterson’s voice as he says, “She’s not in there. If you leave her lunch with me, I’ll make sure it gets to her.”

“Oh.” Tommy sounds convincingly disappointed. “I really wanted to give it to her in person.”

“Well . . . ” Amada can picture Patterson, standing there fiddling with his watch strap.

“It’s our anniversary,” Tommy says. “Five years today.”

“OK, but be quick about it,” Patterson says. “I’d start on the second floor, then check the third.”

Amada hears Tommy’s effusive thanks, followed by the sound of the elevator doors opening and closing. She stands in the stairwell, her heart hammering. The back exit is blocked with several giant boxes of new linen deliveries. She can’t walk through the lobby without running into Patterson, who will want to know why she is so eager to avoid her husband by leaving in the middle of her shift.

She begins hustling up the stairs three at a time, passing the second floor, where Tommy is headed. She steps onto the third floor, out of breath. Maybe she could hide in the supply closet? But it’s all the way down the long hallway—past the elevator. Turning, she finds herself in front of room 307. The blue room.

Down the hall, she hears the ding of the elevator, the slow opening of its doors. Hurriedly, she slides her key card into the reader. She won’t stay in the room for long. Just long enough for Tommy to give up and leave. Her hands are shaking so hard it takes her several tries before the reader beeps, its light flashing green. The handle turns easily. She steps inside.

• • • •

Amada presses her back against the door, welcoming the click of the lock’s tongue. She can hear Tommy coming down the hallway, calling her name in that husky voice she knows so well.

She looks around the blue room for the first time. She hasn’t seen any construction crews come through the hotel, but they must have finished the renovation, because the room is spotless. Massive mirrors gleam on every wall, so that only a few strips of aquamarine paint are visible. The room contains the largest bed she has ever seen, a minimalist four poster carved out of smooth, heavy wood, with an abundance of ice-blue pillows and delicate gossamer drapes tied to each post. There is nothing else in the room: no windows, no desk, no dressers, no night tables. No wads of cash. No bricks of coke. Amada notes these details for when she next sees Lucy. She can picture the widening of Lucy’s eyes, the gloss of her lacquered lashes.

Benny Moré’s “Como Fue” streams from some unseen source. The air is thick with the smell of roses and a hint of something sweet, almost bodily, that Amada can’t identify. She takes a deep breath, her heart still racing, and runs her palms down the front of her uniform.

“Fueron tus ojos o tu boca,” Benny croons, “fueron tus manos o tu voz . . .”

She steps forward, her feet sinking into the lush royal blue carpet. Around her, a dozen Amadas take tentative steps.

There is a closet in the far corner, and Amada crosses the room to open it. Two dozen maids’ uniforms hang in a neat row. Storage? Amada flicks through them, noting the unfamiliar names: Agata. Nadia. Cynthia. Rose.

Lucinda.

Amada’s breath catches in her throat. An old uniform, she thinks, passing a palm over it. From the right pocket, she pulls out a brass lighter. Leaves and vines are engraved on its side, and with them, two letters: LT.

The lighter drops from her numb fingers as Amada stumbles back. She sees a movement in the corner of her eye and whirls around. But it is only her own reflection, wild-eyed, her hair coming out of its neat bun, her uniform rumpled and damp with sweat. Behind her, caught between the mirror on the opposite wall, is another, smaller version of her, and behind that, another: dozens of Amadas, hundreds, tunneling back and back and back.

Amada whips her gaze around the room, noting again the bare décor, the lack of windows. Suddenly, the room feels less like a refuge than a trap.

Stumbling toward the door, she pulls on its handle. It doesn’t budge. Even when she throws all of her weight against it, the door remains immovable. She whips out her cellphone, only to find that it is dead.

“Help,” she yells, pounding against the thick wood. The threat of Tommy seems small now. “Let me out!”

The music swells, louder, louder, louder to drown out her screams.

When at last she turns away from the door, a movement on the bedspread catches her eye—the outline of a face, sliding against the fabric as though surfacing from underwater.

Amada blinks, and the bedspread is a smooth blue expanse once more.

She steps toward the bed. This time, when a shape appears on the surface, she is sure she is really seeing it. It is the outline of a hand, palm facing her like it is splayed against a window. Amada takes another step forward, reaching out her hand to press it against the mirror image straining against the fabric.

Before she can touch the bedspread, the drapes from one corner of the four-poster frame whip around her wrist and pull. She stumbles forward, falling against the mattress. It shifts beneath her, turning soft and malleable. When she pushes with her elbows, they sink as though into wet sand. Panic wells up inside her. She will disappear, just like the others.

Slithering up her wrists, the drapes make for her throat.

Amada musters all her strength and hurls herself away from the bed, hearing a ripping sound as she lands on the floor. The drape twined around her wrist goes limp. She scrambles to her feet, throwing off the fabric, and backs away from the bed.

Benny’s love song has started again from the beginning, softer now that she has stopped screaming. “Como fue . . .” he sings.

Apart from its drapes, which are hanging askew and half-torn, the bed is again perfectly arranged, as though she never fell into it. But now shapes are sliding across its surface: hands, arms, faces with mouths opened in silent, gaping screams.

Amada tilts her head up to the ceiling. “Please,” she says. Her voice comes out a whisper. “Please,” she tries again, louder this time. “Please let me go. What do I have to do for you to let me go?”

When no answer comes, she turns and kicks the wall.

The lights in the room go out, plunging her into darkness. Amada gropes along the walls until she finds the light switch, but flicking it does nothing.

She slumps against the door and slides until she is sitting with her knees to her chest. As her eyes adjust to the darkness, they keep being drawn to the closet, its door still ajar. In the dim light, the uniforms peer out like a premonition.

• • • •

At first, Amada presses her ear to the door and tries to track the time. A cart rattling down the hallway, Natalie’s voice: the night shift must have started. Excited chatter, suitcases wheeling along the carpet: it must be check-out time. Whenever she hears anyone passing, she pounds against the door and screams. But no one seems to hear her, and eventually she gives up. After she wakes the first time, her neck sore from sleeping with her head tipped back against the door, she realizes that she has no idea how much time has passed. “Como Fue” still drifts from the speakers, Benny’s voice looping around her again and again.

Hunched against the door, Amada thinks about her life—every mistake she ever made, every wrong turn, every thoughtless word she wishes she could take back. She remembers the last time she saw Tommy before she left. She had woken up, fully clothed, in the bathtub. Tommy was sitting on the rim, looking down at her. “You’re lucky I didn’t kill you,” he said.

That afternoon, she had come back from the grocery store to find him sitting outside their closet, her shoeboxes scattered in front of him. In his hands was the packet of birth control pills she’d been taking in secret for the past three years. “All this time, you lied to me?” His voice had broken. “All this time, you never wanted a baby?” The last thing she could remember was his hands around her throat.

In the bathtub, Amada stared up at Tommy, at the tears in his eyes. “I just love you too much, Amada,” he said. “That’s my problem. I love you too much.”

Maybe her life was always going to go this way, Amada thinks. Maybe she was always going to have to choose between one form of death or another.

• • • •

The room waits.

Amada can feel it measuring her, walls tremoring, leaning in. Whenever she drifts off, she jerks back into wakefulness from dreams of fabric snaking around her wrists, her ankles, her neck.

One time, she wakes from her half-sleep to see that the corner of the bedspread has turned over. The blue of its fabric makes her think of a lake.

Part of her wants to jump in.

• • • •

By now, Amada has completely lost track of time. She doesn’t know how many hours have passed since she last ate or drank. She can no longer swallow; her mouth feels as though an animal has died in it. Sleep tugs at her insistently, but she is worried that if she rests her head against the door and closes her eyes, this time she won’t wake up.

She struggles to her feet, her muscles screaming. Spots swirl at the corner of her vision, and she sways in place. She stumbles to the closet and flicks through the uniforms, desperate for some distraction. She caresses the closest uniform, tracing its embroidered letters, then shudders as she remembers what they say.

Her foot bumps against something. Amada stoops. Her fingers scrabble against a metal object. As she picks it up, she realizes what it is: Lucy’s lighter. She runs her fingers along the pretty leaf pattern, the engraved initials. Through her exhaustion, she feels a surge of anger. The hotel has taken so many before her. It will take more after she is gone. And no one will care.

She flicks open the cap of the lighter. A small flame flares in the darkness.

Amada’s heart starts beating fast as she thinks of what Patterson said to her as they stood outside the blue room on her first day: The sprinklers in here are broken. She scans the ceiling: no sign of sprinklers.

She tiptoes toward the bed. As if sensing her intent, the gossamer drapes begin fluttering. Remembering her last encounter, Amada stands back as far as she can, then extends her arm and holds the lighter against the drapes.

The fabric flinches away.

Heart in her throat, Amada steps closer and presses the lighter against the drapes. Again, the fabric evades her, twisting just beyond the reach of her flame. Abandoning all caution, she grabs a fistful of fabric and holds it to the lighter. She waits, holding her breath, as the lighter’s small flame licks ineffectually at the drape. The sheer fabric begins to smoulder; then, all at once, it catches. A ribbon of fire moves up, widening as it goes. Amada releases the drape and moves to the next one, repeating the process at each corner, then stands back to admire her handiwork.

Flames are racing up all four corners of the bed, licking at its solid wooden frame. As she watches, the fire spreads across the canopy. The room is growing hot, and she backs all the way to the door. Just in time, too—with a crash, the canopy collapses, and flames whoosh across the dark blue bedspread.

Smoke has filled the room, and Amada feels a bubble of panic when her next breath turns into a wheeze. Coughing, she rips off part of her uniform skirt and holds it against her mouth. She fumbles with the door handle, but of course it doesn’t turn.

Around her, the fire is spreading along the edges of the carpet, licking at the walls. Beneath its roar, Amada hears something else—a faint keening sound, like an animal in pain. Distantly, she also registers a fire alarm. But the noise may as well be coming from another world.

Amada sinks against the door. She spreads her fingers against the carpet and feels it pulsing. No, she thinks—not pulsing. She is getting delirious. She sinks onto the floor, removing the cloth from her face and pressing her lips to the gap beneath the door. She thinks she feels cool air against her teeth. She misses the heavy Miami air. She mourns the fact that she will never again feel it on her skin. Every breath she draws now spikes through her chest. Beneath her cheek, the floor thuds. Like a heart beat, she thinks, as she slips in and out of consciousness. The floor is thudding erratically, racing—then slowing. It is the last thing Amada hears before she blacks out.

She does not remember what comes next—does not remember the feeling of many ghostly hands surrounding her, shielding her from the fire’s heat. All she knows is that, when the door of the blue room crashes open and the hallway’s air hits her with a cool shock, she startles back into wakefulness. She crawls out of the room and into the smoke-filled hallway, then stumbles down the stairs. She staggers into the lobby, where a man in a firefighter’s uniform hauls her out. Only then does that strange, enveloping touch release her.

• • • •

Outside, the firetrucks’ lights cast everything in a flickering glow: a baffled Patterson talking to a policewoman. Guests standing in clusters, some barefoot, some in flip-flops. Firefighters trying to quell the flames.

Someone hands her a bottle of water and she finishes it in one long, satisfying pull. Her left hand is clenched tight. She opens it; she is still holding the lighter.

Lucy.

Amada closes her eyes, seeing again the row of uniforms. She wishes she could remember all their names.

From behind her, there is a resounding crash. She turns in time to see the hotel’s third floor collapse into the second. As she watches the flames illuminate the night, Amada listens for something beneath the fire’s roar—a keening, the sound of a soul aflame—and hears nothing.

Her pocket begins to vibrate. She pulls out her phone, now miraculously revived. The screen says “caller unknown,” but Amada knows who it is. She stares at the phone for a long moment. Then she takes a deep breath, filling her lungs with the air of a night that is hers alone. She will never go back. Slipping the phone into her pocket, turning from the hotel, Amada makes her way down the street, toward home.

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Yohanca Delgado

Yohanca Delgado is an American writer living in Moscow. She is a member of the 2019 Clarion class and earned an MFA in Creative Writing from American University. She is at work on a novel and a short story collection. Find her online at @yodelnyc.

Claire Wrenwood

Claire Wrenwood grew up in Indiana and New Zealand and now lives in Durham, North Carolina. A member of the Clarion class of 2019, she has work published or forthcoming at Tor.com and Lightspeed Magazine. Find her at clairewrenwood.com.