The Midland Railroad Hotel

Published in Wordsmith_HQ’s The Purple Breakfast Review: ‘Nightmares and Daydreams’ (June 2019)

Sasha awoke to the sound of a bell.

The hotel room was uncanny, the darkened furniture seeming both familiar and unfamiliar. Slowly, the details of the past day began to assemble in Sasha’s brain, falling into place with each deep clang of the bell: the hours they had spent driving through the flat arid landscape, arriving well after midnight in this town, Wilson; the palm-sized iron key that the receptionist handed them across the counter, a wide smile frozen onto his pale young face; holding the bannisters as they ascended floor after floor – the hotel had no elevator; fitting that key into the lock and turning it to hear the firm crunch as the bolt slid back; the door opening and a crack of light falling on the bed; falling onto that bed.

Maybe we overslept, Sasha thought. Maybe it’s Sunday morning already and the congregation is gathering across the road. 

Darkness visible through the crack between the curtains confirmed that it was still night. Sasha rolled over, twisting a pillow around her head for a pair of makeshift earmuffs. The LCD screen on John’s wristwatch was turned down into the covers, his splayed arms and legs immobile in unconsciousness. Sasha didn’t bother trying to turn him over. His wet, hiccupping snores tore through the room’s interior, momentarily overpowering the sound of the bells. They had spent enough nights together for John’s snoring to recede to the outskirts of Sasha’s mind, only noticeable under direct scrutiny. The bells did not cease. 

The curtains billowed and flapped, prodded by the prairie wind that brought the faint smells of hay and manure and warm asphalt into the room. Sasha rose and went to the window, remembering that it had been sealed shut earlier.  Operator error, most likely. Maybe John managed to pry it open to let the air in

Sasha passed through the slit between the curtains and stood at the windowsill, gazing out into the dark night. The window wasn’t just open but missing, removed from its hinges and frame and squirreled away. The warm air circulating around Sasha’s lithe, naked body felt like a river of tepid water; the sensation was pleasant and – for a moment – her eyes closed in rapturous, wilful ignorance of everything outside of the feeling of night air on bare skin. 

But the tolling bells forced Sasha’s eyes back open. They were drawn to a sign, which read “DRUNKEN BRETHREN CHURCH” in bold black capitals against a whitewashed board. Behind the sign, the building was a silhouette, considerably darker than the charcoal farmland stretching out under the black horizon. The sky was a pool of crude oil and the church was but a drop, clinging to this pool by the thin trickle of its bell-tower.

A faint prick of light appeared at the door of the church. It glowed like the flame of a tea candle, emitting a soft halation and swaying in the gentle breeze. It began to grow and move, widening every second. As it streaked around its predetermined course, Sasha recognised that a general shape began to form: a rather tall man with what appeared to be a cane in one hand and a bottle in the other. 

Sasha was so engaged with the emergence of this one man that the appearance of other pricks of light nearby almost escaped her notice. They sprang up around the entrance to the church, swaying and spinning in the same manner as the one that had produced the man, who was now nearly complete as a deathly pale gentleman in a smart, white tailored suit with tails and a white top hat on his head. Sasha could even make out the wisps of a silver moustache above his top lip, curling outward like the last few sparks off a dying ember. 

The other figures that emerged around the gentleman – all of whom were equally pale and equally elegant – formed a tight crowd around the door to the church, which was now sufficiently illuminated for Sasha to see the ornate carvings in the old, varnished wood. As a crowd, the individuals were hard to make out; standing together, they overlapped to form a miasmic mass of white and silver and grey. But around the outside of the crowd, a few were visible, dressed in slightly less formal attire, rumpled suits and frayed collars unclosed by ties. They shuffled in place, looking bored and aimless as they looked down at their boot-clad feet. 

Then, the crowd by the door began moving more vigorously, cheering and dancing and clasping pallid hands high above their heads. The bells increased in volume, clanging metallic thunderclaps out across the deserted landscape. Sasha wondered whether the sound would rouse John, but the familiar hiccups and gasping snores continued. 

The bride and groom arrived in style, bursting forth from the church doors as a couple. Little grains of white rice and a fine mist of sprayed champagne rained down upon them. His suit shimmered like velvet, but seemed to grow brighter in the folds rather than darker. It was made of a different material than the ones worn by those who surged forth to clap him on the back and tussle his silver hair. The overall impression was of a man clothed in moonstone. 

Compared to the majesty of the bride’s dress though, his suit looked like a cheap rental. Every square inch of the flowing, floor-length, gown contained a supernatural glow. Like a round brilliant diamond, the dress both reflected and refracted the surrounding light of the crowd. The strapless sweetheart cut attracted Sasha’s eyes to a small, teardrop necklace resting against her sternum. Her smile was wide, and though her lips and cheeks had not the slightest hint of color, she looked happy and healthy, as every young bride should.

The couple walked on through the hail of rice and silent cheers. The bells, having reached their zenith, receded. Stillness and silence overtook the night. As the newlyweds crossed the street into the village green, they were followed first by the gentlemen and ladies who had gathered around the door, then by the few who had lurked on the church lawn, casting forlorn glances at the crowd. 

They all assembled around a gazebo, where the beautiful couple took the floor and began a slow dance. The silence was total, but the visible rhythm of the first dance provided the beat and Sasha’s memories of past waltzes were enough to supply a melody; she couldn’t help but hum the inaudible tune. As the two dancers spun, the bottom of the bride’s gown twirled and rode up slightly, revealing a pair of glass stilettos. They looked impossibly fragile, yet her movements were fluid and carefree. She seemed to float in his capable hands, round and round and round.

As they came to the conclusion of their dance, he spun her outward on one arm. Her body pirouetted with the effortless grace of a professional ballerina, one arm extended up toward the starless sky, the other sliding along her companion’s sleeve. As her upraised arm fell, so too did her body and the body of her companion into a deep bow. The crowd around the gazebo erupted into silent applause. When the couple stood straight once again, they made a sweeping gesture of invitation. 

In a moment, everyone around the gazebo had paired off and commenced a wild dance. The shabby men who had previously kept their distance were indiscriminately mixing with their social betters. Powder-faced women wearing large semi-spherical hoop skirts joined hands with bare-chested men with bald bandanas encircling their necks. They paraded around the gazebo. Men danced with men, women with women, and all their heads were thrown back in noiseless laughter. 

Up at the window set into the oxidised copper roof of the Midland Railroad Hotel, Sasha felt a sense of melancholy rising with the revelry of the celebrants in the village green. She had, until this point, given no thought as to who or what these figures were, but began to feel as though the whole charade was an invitation addressed to the lonely person in the window. But the lonely person in the window will not budge, Sasha decided. The lonely person in the window will remain lonely because loneliness is a feeling and feelings are only palpable to the living. 

The smiles and laughter of the happy couple and their party were a facsimile of happiness—an imitation of the feeling. They smiled because they were stuck in this empty, isolated place. They smiled because if they didn’t, they would cry and the image of a crying bride is too cliché, even for a ghost town. They smiled because they had forgotten the pain and the pleasure of living and so had no reason to do anything else with their faces. They smiled for the same reason that the receptionist at the front desk of the hotel smiled: because it was inoffensive and polite and welcoming. 

There’s nothing like standing at an open window several floors up, thought Sasha, to make you question mortality.

Sasha turned from the window without another glance at the wedding party. The room was hot and heavy with the stench of human sweat, the rasping breaths that escaped from John’s cavernous mouth seeming to perfume the muggy air. Sasha sighed and slipped into bed behind him. Their two bodies fit together like a lock into a key. Though which one was the lock and which one was the key was never clear to Sasha. Maybe John is the lock because he keeps me grounded, providing a view of the world as one solid, unremarkable entity. Maybe John is the key because he opens all the doors I never could. Maybe we’re both locks, fastened to each other through the best and worst of life’s fortunes. Or maybe we’re both keys, unlocking the secrets of this world together

Whatever they were, they were together. They were alive and they were together.

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