Reflections – A Novella – Part 3
Finally I was going home – just as Mort had promised – and soon everything would be fine. The cramping in my guts refused to ease up but now that I could see the end of this ordeal in sight, the pain seemed less important.
The street had gotten busier while we’d been in the diner. The night had thickened and the sky had taken on an oily quality. The filth that I’d woken up in earlier was everywhere in this place, the litter and degradation seemingly without end. The horrid stench of hot garbage and urine prevailed, resulting in a new bout of nausea. Stubbornly I clinched my teeth and did my best to put it out of mind.
Miraculously no one else seemed to notice.
Maybe they just didn’t care.
These people terrified me. Whenever someone got too near I pulled all the closer to Mort’s side. The idea of being touched by one of these creatures disturbed and disgusted me. And that’s when it hit me; I knew where I was.
The summer previous, my by best friend Claire had gotten her drivers license. We; Claire, myself and our third constant –Amanda; had spent an entire Saturday just cruising around the city, enjoying our new-found freedom. We’d been in her mother’s Volvo –not exactly the epitome of cool but to three sixteen year old girls, free in the city for the first time without needing a bus pas, it was about as cool as things got.
Of course we’d all been down this strip before. Living in Vancouver, no matter how badly one might want to forget about the existence of the lost souls down here, you’d inevitably find yourself out this way on occasion. That afternoon, however, was the first time any of the three of us had seen it beyond the safety of a quickly passing vehicle.
The Volvo had sprung a flat –not all that far up the strip from Charlie and his greasy dive – and we’d had no choice but to pull over.
It was in the midst of summer so even at nine the city was clinging to that blanket of twilight that seems to stretch on forever in the warmer months. If not for that lingering light, I don’t think the three of us would have been near courageous enough to venture out into those alien surroundings.
We couldn’t find a single working payphone in the area. Most had been destroyed by vandals. Others had been entirely removed from their posts. As we searched we were approached by at least half a dozen people; none of which my mother would have considered desirable. The area belonged to drug addicts, drunks, hookers and the mentally unstable.
Later the three of us would sit around giggling about the adventure, but not one of us could claim to have been without terror in the short time we were stranded down there.
It was an ugly place.
It was a desperate place.
It was the place where hope went to die.
Amanda managed to convince a cashier in a corner market to let us use the phone. I think he must have pitied us some, or maybe he was just concerned with how obviously out of place we were there. Regardless of his reasoning, we were able to call Claire’s parents and the cavalry arrived twenty minutes later. Mr. Kolten had found us inside the locked Volvo with all the windows rolled up tight despite the heat.
Later that night my father said to me, “Laney, East Hastings is never a destination; it’s the place where people end up when their choices have left them no where else to go.”
“It is not a place for good girls from good homes,” my mother tagged on. “It is certainly not a place for you, Laney-Jane.” She’d punctuated this with one of her squishy-nosed, squinty-eyed looks of distaste.
I had had every intention of heeding their warnings, and yet there I was again. There I was following some strange man down a strip of road I had no right to be on. There I was amongst the waste and the filth and the great unwashed. There I was missing an entire week of my life, sick as hell and – if the aches and pains and cuts and bruises were any indication – I was in pretty bad shape.
I’d gotten so caught up in my thoughts that I nearly collided with Mort when he stopped in front of the old, brick building.
Oblivious to my lack of grace, he hit a button on the intercom pad.
A moment later a woman answered, “Ya?”
“Hey Charlotte,” he said, speaking into the grill. “I got Laney here. Buzz us up, would ya?”
The woman heaved a long suffering sigh.
A buzzer sounded and the door lock disengaged.
Mort held the door open for me and motioned me inside.
The stench of the street –while not entirely abated – was a deal less intrusive inside the building. I was grateful for that much at least.
The lighting was dull but I could see the stained, maroon carpet that covered the floor well enough. I noticed the peeling wallpaper; yellow with little pink roses; and tried to imagine this building in better times. I couldn’t.
My anxiety level began to rise again.
“Come on,” Mort urged.
I didn’t know why, but I once more did as I was instructed to do. I followed him down the hall, through a door and up two flights of steps. By the time we reached the top, the aching in my limbs had become almost unbearable, but at least the cramping in my guts had subsided some.
Just beyond the stairwell a door opened and an attractive, albeit tacky, redhead stepped out. She grinned at us while intentionally pushing out her more then ample chest. She winked at Mort and licked her lips. She reminded me a little of the mom from that sit-com about the horribly dysfunctional family. You know the one where the dad works in a shoe store and can never seem to catch a break? Only… there was something about her grin that reminded me more of the Cheshire cat. It was a little unnerving.
I instantly decided that I did not like this woman, and I liked her a whole lot less when she addressed me by name a moment later.
“Where the hell have you been Laney?” She snorted. “Dean’s been outta his mind looking for you. I keep telling that boy that he needs a real woman,” she rolled her eyes. “But love is a blind old bitch, ain’t she?”
I stared blankly at her.
I might be missing a bank of memories but it was quite clear that I’d made an impression on at least a few people in that past week. It was a very disturbing notion.
“Cut it out Char,” Mort said. He spoke firmly but without menace. “She’s been through a bit of a rough one. Can you just get us the keys?” He added, “Please,” and punctuated it with a little smile.
Charlotte pulled a ring of keys from a hook inside the doorway. She held them up to the light to get a better look, and then pulled one from the loop and handed it to Mort. “Anything for you darling,” she said with another wink. And then she stepped back into her apartment and shut the door in our faces.
When she was gone I followed Mort up the hall and around the corner.
Room 313; something about that number made me nervous. I started scratching at the skin on my left forearm again.
Mort used the key he’d taken from Charlotte to unlock the door, and then moved aside to let me pass.
I stared at him. “I want to go home,” I said.
He sighed again.
“Okay kiddo, I know,” he said. “Now just listen to me okay? You go on inside. Have a bath, take a rest. Find yourself some clean clothes. When you’re done you come on downstairs. I’ll be at the bar across the street okay? The Red Eye? If you still need me, that’s where I’ll be.”
“But…” I protested. “I just need a phone. I want to go home.”
He silenced me with the saddest smile I’d ever seen. “It’s okay Laney. Everything you need, you’ll find in there. I’ll be right across the street like I said. Okay? I promise.”
I had never been one to just do what I was told without question or dispute. I had never been content to follow the flow unless I understood exactly where it was going. I couldn’t comprehend why, on that day of days, I kept doing as I was instructed when I knew what I really should be doing. I should have shaken off Mort the second he failed to lead me to a phone. I should have gone off on my own and found one, or walked down to the cop shop a few blocks away. Instead I stepped into the strange apartment and watched as Mort pulled the door closed. After he was gone I stood there for another five minutes, just staring at the door without really seeing it.
My silent daze was rudely interrupted by another bout of cramps. This time they were so intense that I was actually fallen in my agony. I dropped down to my knees on the threadbare carpet. The nausea bubbled and boiled and I was barely able to hold it back.
I don’t know how long I knelt there in pain, but it felt like an eternity.
Wave after wave of agony and sickness washed through me. I felt dizzy and on the verge of fainting. I think I might have welcomed the sweet bliss of unconsciousness in that moment, if only to briefly escape my torment. Eventually though the cramps once more began to subside and the queasiness ebbed. I regained control over my limbs and found the strength to push myself up to my feet. I stumbled forward and engaged the deadbolt at the top of the door. I sat down on the twin bed, just for a moment. Just long enough to catch my breath.
Who lives here? I wondered.
Who’d want to? Countered an inner voice that sounded suspiciously like my mother.
The entire expanse of the apartment would have fit into my bedroom at home with room left over. It was a dump really, with that same peeling yellow wallpaper and the same worn carpeting I’d seen out in the hall. There were brown stains across the ceiling, and even more water damage evident beneath the two small windows.
It was barely more than a hovel, and yet someone called this home.
It was kept fairly neat, however, and it was hard to miss the slight – but definite – feminine touches; little knickknacks and the odd stuffed animal, a coloured scarf draped over one lampshade. There was a history there, insignificant as it seemed to me, and I felt a little guilty about being so judgmental.
My life had been blessed from birth and this was a lifestyle that I was never meant to understand. Had it not been for some cruel twist of fate bringing me down to this place I would likely have lived my whole life without wasting as much as ten minutes contemplating the poor souls that resided over here on the other side of the looking glass. I couldn’t imagine how it must feel to be so lost and alone in the world that this ended up being your reality.
I stood up and made a quick search of the apartment but found no phone. I couldn’t even find a jack.
Frustrated, I went into the bathroom and found more signs of femininity; a little dish of cheap jewellery, a makeup box, a little oyster half-shell filled with dusty potpourri. There was a vase of glass roses sitting beside the sink that was quite similar to one I had at home.
There was no mirror in the room – just the void where one had once been – and I was a little grateful not to have to face my reflection.
I searched the cupboard below the sink and was rewarded with two sadly worn; but thankfully clean; yellow towels. I dug around a little further and managed to produce a fresh bar of soap and some scented bath oils that I rather shamelessly helped myself to.
I ran the water as hot as I could stand it and added a few drops of the rose oil. The scent that filled the room reminded me of my grandmother. On any other day, in any other place, that scent might not have been half so pleasing, but right then it comforted me greatly.
I noticed that I was scratching my arms again as I slid into the tub. I’d been raking at the flesh hard enough to leave ugly red streaks. I forced myself to stop as I sunk into the hot water. It felt luxurious. Even the aching in my muscles and joints began to melt away.
By the time I stepped from the tub the water had grown grey and tepid, but my skin felt soft and blissfully clean. The filth I’d woken in that evening had finally been washed away and it felt good.
Not even remotely comfortable with the idea using someone else’s toothbrush, I smeared a little toothpaste on my finger and did the best I could to erase the lingering flavours from my tongue.
I found a pack of fresh combs in a drawer and pulled one from the plastic. With some effort I was able to work through most of the knots in my hair. As I went about this chore I noticed bits of electric blue in what should only have been chestnut locks. This confused me but I was not overly daunted by it; it was far from being the most disturbing discovery thus far on that strange, strange day, and it was nothing that couldn’t be easily corrected once I got home.
I found it funny really, when I actually stopped to think about it. The previous fall I had begged my mother to let me dye my hair – she’d of course refused – but now that I finally had the funky colouring I’d been so hung up on, all I wanted to do was get it out.
Whenever I managed to get back to my regularly scheduled life, I wanted no reminders of this day. A very large part of me had already decided that that I never wanted back the missing pieces of the last week. What I didn’t know couldn’t hurt me, couldn’t haunt me, and couldn’t keep me up at night.
I just wanted to get home. I wanted to sleep in my own bed, eat breakfast with my family and forget that any of this had ever happened.
To be continued…