A Life Inside
by Carrie Padian
When they tried to reconstruct Alice Anderson’s final days on Earth, the police were surprised at how little her coworkers knew of her whereabouts. Many of them had been in town only for the weekend, a company outing full of beer and drunken small talk. Now they were all lined up, a row of white men in starched white shirts in the station waiting area, heads buried in their phones or talking on their bluetooth headsets. Alice’s boss was called in first.
The hallway down to the interrogation room was cold and institutional. The concrete block, aging paint, and reinforced glass all reminded Arthur Kelly of his elementary school. 35 years ago, life was simple and Art was the king of the dodgeball court. He missed it. The other kids shrinking away from him in the hallways felt like power, and Art loved every minute of it. Managing a bunch of finance hacks came close — their lives in his hands, just a little bit — but it couldn’t match that old primal feeling. Now, with a cop at his back and an industrial steel table blocking the exit, Art was looking for outs. It was game time.
“Can I get some coffee or something?” he asked with a smile. The detective on the other side of the table was young, with slicked black hair and a smug, smarmy face that made Art’s knuckles itch. He was studying a file in front of him, Alice’s file. Art made a point of clearing his throat until the man looked up.
“Yes, yes of course,” he said, “though between you and me, calling that stuff coffee is an act of extreme charity.” He gestured to the uniformed officer by the door. “Uh…Williams, would you mind? Cream and sugar?” He turned to Art.
“Two black coffees, if you please.” His eyes followed her out of the room. “So, Arthur, what can you tell me about Alice Anderson? Have you known her long?”
Art sat back in his chair, a metal folding number that creaked beneath his bulk. His back was sweating, and he didn’t know why. “No, I wouldn’t say that, exactly. Well, Alice worked for me for about three or four years but I can’t say I ever really got to know her.”
“Oh no? Why is that?”
The officer returned and set a steaming cup on the table in front of Art. He sipped at it and stared into the black for a long moment, considering his answer.
“To be honest, I can’t really tell you why. Alice was a pretty girl and a good worker but sometimes that just isn’t enough. Sometimes the human side is missing a little, if you know what I mean. You can try but they won’t let you in.” He looked up at the detective. “You get what I’m saying, kid? Sometimes you can’t get to know your coworkers as well as you’d like to, is what I’m saying.” He cast a meaningful glance at the girl who had brought the coffee. She met his eyes and then stared at the floor. Art sipped again at his cup.
I admit it, in fact, I’d be the first to admit that I’m not that easy to know. Sometimes I don’t know how Ben, my fiancé, ever puts up with me. “Quirky”, is what my mom always called it. Dad would say “independent” with a sigh, as if that’s the worst quality a woman can possess.
I didn’t want to go to Chicago in the first place. Sure, the firm paid to fly me in, put me up in a pretty nice hotel, and then set up this whole party thing, but if I’m being honest, I would have preferred to just spend that time at home with Ben and the cats, reading books, watching movies. I don’t like socializing, and it doesn’t like me. The idea of hours on a rooftop with Art and the gang making small conversation while they get drunker and drunker, pretending not to notice when their gazes linger just south of my collarbone or their fingers graze my ass as they’re walking by, pretending I think it’s funny when they call me “token bitch”, well, no. That doesn’t sound like a good time to me. And yet, after last week’s pointed conference call where Art blustered on about being “the head of this family” and that it was breaking his heart that our sales numbers weren’t higher and we needed a few good “team players” out there, well, I had no choice but to go. Despite everything, I knew the only girl on the team would be the first on the chopping block when Art went looking to trim the fat. No pun intended.
Detective Matthew Savits rubbed his eyes. Never before had he spent so much time talking to so many smart looking men who knew so very little. Many of Alice’s coworkers seemed to know even less about her than he did. Not a one of them had seen her leave the party. Most of them hadn’t even known she was engaged. He stared at the twin photographs in front of him, one a headshot from Alice’s driver’s license. She was white, blonde, early thirties, and her stats put her at five feet seven inches and just under 200 pounds. A solid woman. Physically, Alice was average as could be. Unremarkable. She was smart though, he could see it in her smile, almost a smirk at the camera. This was a woman who could know things just by looking at you. What happened then? How does this smart, savvy, solid woman end up like that? Matt touched the second picture with a gentle fingertip, tracing the orange electrical cord wound around Alice’s neck.
It was the longest flight of his life. “Just over four hours, gate to gate!” the attendant chirped into the intercom. Ben Stadt felt his insides clench. He couldn’t decide if he wanted to actually get there. As long as they were still in the air, maybe Alice was still alive. Maybe that was some other dead blonde girl the police were calling about. Some other poor sap’s fiancée. Ben shifted in his seat and felt the armrest digging into his hip. He welcomed the pain. It helped him feel less dead inside, in the parts that wanted to join Alice wherever she was. The world felt so empty without her in it. He felt a hand on his arm.
“Do you hate flying as much as I do, sweetheart?” came a voice from his left, the woman in the window seat he had only barely looked at when he boarded the plane. He took her in now, a soft, round, motherly brunette. She was staring at him with imploring eyes, practically begging to be of use to him in his time of need. And she didn’t even know how much he needed right now. Alice would have ignored her, maybe put headphones on or buried her nose in a book. Ben nodded and patted her hand. “Yes, thank you, I do, I hate flying. It’s the absolute worst.”
Ben didn’t always hate flying, you know. I remember this trip he and I took to Acapulco to celebrate our second year together and you should have seen him on the plane. His face just lit up like a kid on Christmas, so thrilled with the excitement of flying through the air. He was so giddy the woman next to us asked if it was his first time flying and he said “nope, I’m always like this.” He was, always like that, and I loved him for it. I was the one who hated it. Flying seemed to me like an exercise in giving up your human rights. First, they pack you into this tin can with maybe a few square feet of personal space, tops, then they tell you when you get to use your own laptop, when you’re allowed to drink something, when you can use the bathroom, what angle your seat back should be. It’s torture on the best of days, when I’ve got Ben to distract me, but flying alone is just awful. They always sit me next to some chatty lady, or worse, some dude who spreads his knees as wide as possible until they’re pushing into my leg space, like somehow he’s entitled to it, and then he spends the whole damn flight telling me about his very successful business or his sweet, loving family and I try to nod a little to be polite, but not so much that I’m encouraging him to keep talking, because doesn’t he see that I have this book in my hands? No, he doesn’t seem to notice. He never does. He just wants an audience for a few hours and since we’re on a plane there’s nowhere I can go to escape. No escape. Now, that sounds familiar.
The Q Hotel was downtown, right in the middle of everything, which meant parking was going to be a bitch. Matt circled the block a solid ten times before giving in and pulling up to the valet stand. If only he was driving a black and white. He could park that thing anywhere he pleased. But hitting the hotel on his way home meant taking the Hyundai and that meant parking like a civilian. He flashed his badge at the attendant as he handed over the keys. “Uh..take good care of her, yeah?” Sometimes that worked. Man, he loved flashing that badge. Maybe they wouldn’t even charge him.
Matt pushed through a revolving door and found himself in the 1960s. Everything in the Q lobby could be characterized as “groovy” or “far out”, from the flashing lights to the white leather furniture. On his left, the hotel bar was a cluster of giggling, chatty drinkers and Matt could feel rather than hear the music pouring out of the speakers scattered every few feet. It made him feel old, which he wasn’t. Not for a detective anyway. Just four years on the force before he took the exam and passed it in one go. A fluke, really. Matt had always been good at tests. Unfortunately that skill didn’t always translate very well to field work. After more than a year at it, he still felt like a rank amateur when it came to the detecting part.
He approached the front desk, manned by a tall, thin kid who couldn’t be more than twenty. He flipped open his badge again. “Chicago PD. I was told you’re holding Alice Anderson’s room?”
The clerk was maybe a little too eager to please. “Yessir, we’ve been waiting for you to come take another look. We’ve got it up there just as she left it. I told housekeeping not to go in there, not to even touch it. Like I said, we’ve been waiting for you.”
Matt shot him a look, preparing a response along the lines of eff you, kid. I’ve been busy until he thought better of it. It might help to have a guy on the inside. “Well, I’m here now. Can you show me?”
Alice’s room was on the fifteenth floor, a double room which was odd only because her colleagues all asked for kings. “I’ve never really had so many people from one group insist on a king bed before,” the front desk kid said, “I wasn’t entirely sure we wouldn’t run out but it turns out we’ve got more kings than doubles even. And the doubles are cheaper so they go faster. In the end, it was harder for me to find her an open double than it was to find all those kings.”
Matt nodded, considering. “Why do you think she wanted a double then?”
The clerk leaned in and pushed the door open. “See for yourself. I think she might’ve just wanted someplace to spread out.”
1504 was a typical upscale hotel room with a few major differences. The ceilings were high with exposed ductwork and piping which gave the space an industrial, lofty feel. The walls, ceilings and all the furniture were stark white. It made Matt not want to touch anything for fear of griming it up. There was an unplugged floor lamp on its side in the middle of the room. On the wall across from the slept-in bed hung a lightbox with words printed on it: Life is not about discovering yourself. Life is about creating yourself.
The second bed was covered in paper, stacks of typewritten pages lined up meticulously along the edges of the mattress. Air coming through the a/c vent had blown a few of them out of place. Matt bent down and squinted at an errant page.
“Huh.” he said. “So she was a writer?”
“It looks like it. I mean, her name is on all of these pages.” The clerk picked up a sheaf of them and flipped through it before Matt could stop him. “What is it, though? A novel? Maybe a dissertation or something?”
Matt took the pages from the clerk and moved toward the bathroom’s better lighting. He heard a squish and looked down. The carpet was saturated. “Did something happen here?” he asked.
The clerk crouched next to the spot and prodded it with a long finger, watching the short pile carpet disappear under the water and reemerge again. “That’s a lot of water.” He looked up just as a cold, fat drop splashed on his face from above. “Aagggh! Right in my eye. Thanks man.”, he said as Matt handed him a towel.
“Is that normal?”
“I don’t think so..I mean no, of course not. I can get one of my plumbing guys to take a look at it.”
“Don’t do that just yet. I want to have our guys look at it first.” He glanced at the pipe above. There was a discolored gap in the stark white paint. “Actually wait. Do you have a ladder I can use?”
Please don’t ask me about the book. I really don’t want to talk about the book.
Art watched the sun set over the rooftops from his grand mahogany desk, stiff-backed in an antique Persian leather chair that cost more than his car. The temperature in the office remained a steady 68 degrees but Art was still sweating. He ran a finger underneath his shirt collar and loosened the choke hold grip of his necktie. He should never have talked to that cop without a lawyer. What a stupid, amateur move. At least he didn’t lie. No he didn’t. No, not really. Alice was a hard bitch to know. So many times she shut him out. And he had tried, really tried with her. So many second chances when her numbers were down. So many other ways he had given her to prove her worth to the company.
He walked to his office door and pushed in the lock. With any luck he’d have a few hours before the cleaning staff came in. On his desk sat a laptop with an open document on the screen. The margin text read “What Happens Next: a novel by Alice Anderson.” He scrolled to the first page and began to skim.
The Q Hotel was generally quiet at night, and that was the way José liked it. The late night party people usually kept their partying to the hotel bar or the dive joint down the street, which meant the people who asked for things after hours were the quiet ones, the lonely introverts who preferred dinner alone in their rooms with a good book to seeing and being seen out on the town. José’s people. He loved to bring a little cheer into the lonely traveler’s life, be it a bit of friendly conversation or an extra fudge brownie sneaked in on the tray. No request was too big or too small. After all, lonely travelers were exceedingly good tippers. But José told himself he wasn’t just in it for the money. He liked the feeling at the end of a long night shift that he had done a little good in the world. He had served someone, with every ounce of meaning that word entailed. José liked to think of himself as the lonely traveler’s trusted friend. And no one in the world, no one else ever needed to know about it.
“Biff Johnson was a powerful man, and he never let you forget it. He moved about the world like a movie star with an entourage, young, impressionable girls hanging on his every word. He could have had any one of them in any combination he wanted but Biff was a hunter and he liked a challenge. He’d spot his prey across the room and sidle up to her silently, like a leopard stalking a gazelle. And then he’d attack, not with teeth but with effusive charm that made her feel like the most beautiful prey animal in the room. She’d be dead before she even realized he was watching.”
Matt lay the stack of pages on his lap. Well, that was thinly-veiled as all hell. Was this supposed to be fiction? He flipped to the back, the final words on the final pages.
“Serena heard the door shut behind her and only then could she let loose the torrent of tears pricking behind her eyelids. Such a helpless feeling. Of course she knew he’d make a horrible father. He was a weak man, deep down. Not at all the kind of partner who would stand by her side and face life’s challenges. Not like Dan. Dan had always been the only person she could ever count on. But if he knew…if he knew what she was, what she had done… Serena choked back a sob as she realized Biff was now out in the world with intimate knowledge of her secret affairs and nothing at all to stop him.”
“Oh, crap” Matt picked up his phone and dialed the station. “Hey Lanie, listen, I’m going to need someone to pick up Art Kelly for further questioning. Can you send a car? Office and home. Yeah, now please. I’ll meet you there.”
The book is dumb, right? You can tell me. I can take it. No I know, the book is dumb. I’m so terrible at writing fiction. But I had to get it out. What can you do when your life becomes a freaking melodrama? What else can you do when you realize you’re the stupid girl in this equation, that despite all your desire to become someone interesting and special, your life has become the biggest cliche? Yeah, I screwed my boss. I did it. Me. I’m the dumb girl. Wow, it almost feels good to get that off my chest, or I guess it would if it wasn’t too damn late for any of that to matter.
You know what happens next though, right? To Serena? Yes, she offs herself. She should have gone after Biff and made him pay but she’s selfish and stupid and she ends her life with a gun. And so would I have too, if I’d had one. But when you’re traveling you have to make do with what you’ve got.
The morgue waiting area was surprisingly cheerful. The walls were a creamy blue with sunset landscape paintings every few feet. The symbolism wasn’t lost on Ben. If he ignored the death smell lingering in the air, he might have been able to pretend he was at the dentist’s office waiting for a cavity to be filled. Alice would have appreciated this room. She would’ve wanted to write about it, how we strive so hard to find the silver lining of death, how that blinds us to the fact that we’re all going to die, some sooner than others. He clenched his fingers into a fist, stifling the empty cry that was waiting just inside his chest. He had done this. He had failed her, failed to save her. Now it was all too late. Ben heard someone calling his name and walked toward the waiting room door. Dreamlike. Nightmarelike.
It had been a mistake to go back to the room that night. José knew that. After all, the guest had ordered steaks and scotch for two and usually that meant do not disturb for the rest of the evening. But there was something in her look when he delivered the tray, something wild and unsettling that José couldn’t put out of his mind no matter how hard he tried. So he waited for a lull in his evening calls and up he went, under the guise of retrieving the room service tray and seeing if there would be anything else for the night. His light knock went unanswered. José paused, ear pressed to the door for some sign of life. He heard a wail from within and a crash and that was plenty. He knocked again, louder this time, then used his key card in the lock.
i never wanted to be a parent. Did you know that? Or a wife, for that matter. When we were first dating I told Ben that all of that family stuff would just interfere with my grand plans to take over the world. I was joking but not joking, if you know what I mean. I told him having kids felt like erecting a giant chain-link fence around your life, an unbreakable barrier between what you are now and what you might someday want to be. So we kept it casual. We kept it so, so casual, so we could both live our lives and be free. He used to say he didn’t want kids either but I think he was lying about that. He liked to tell me what he thought I wanted to hear. But then his sister had kids and he became the fun uncle and I think he really loved it. He wouldn’t say, but I think playing with those kids made him feel more whole somehow, and even engaged, our life together looked so empty by comparison. So barren.
Alice’s body looked small under the sheet. It reminded Ben of the way she’d sleep, curled up into a compact ball next to him on the bed, her body disappearing among the pillows. She loved pillows. She’d surround herself with them like a moat of feathers, keeping the interlopers out she once said. It bothered him that she did that but he never said so. Sometimes it was enough of a job just to keep her happy without bringing his own complaints into the mix. Sometimes she was just so sad that he couldn’t even reach her. Not with hands. Not with words. He stood, now, just out of reach. It felt right to keep his sorrow some distance away.
The morgue attendant met his eyes and then pulled back the sheet, displaying Alice’s shoulders and head. Ben exhaled a long, slow breath he’d been holding since he entered the room. It was her, he was sure of it, but she looked so different here. He used to watch her face when she was sleeping. There was always a tension in it, a vigilance she held onto and couldn’t let go. This face here was serene Alice. Alice at peace. Alice who had finally gotten the freedom she wanted from this tortured world. That’s what she would have said anyway, if he had been able to ask her. Ben nodded at the attendant. She replaced the sheet over Alice’s head and asked “Oh, have you been up to see the baby?”
“The what?” Ben was stunned. “I…don’t know…what baby?”
“Alice’s baby. Up in the NICU.”
Ben’s face must have been a mask of confusion because the attendant nodded and left the room, then returned with a counselor in tow. She spoke slowly and in soothing tones.
“Hello Mr. Stadt, I’m so sorry for your loss. I know this is a difficult time, but if you’re ready I’d love to take you up to meet your daughter. She’s been waiting all day to meet you.”
“My what?” Ben resisted.
“Your daughter. Come on.” She took Ben’s elbow and guided him toward the door. “I think you’re really going to enjoy meeting her. And I’m pretty sure she’s got your nose.”
So yes, in the end, José the friendly room service clerk saved me. He pulled me out of there, called an ambulance, put me in it and saved me. Not my life of course, my neck was broken. I was too far gone. Jose saved the important part of me, the part that mattered. My baby girl. Something of me to leave behind for Ben. Something for him to love and care for in a way I would never let him love and care for me. Sometimes I come back and watch the two of them through the chain-link fence. They are living a life, a beautiful life, to be sure, but a life that was never meant for me. I belong on the outside of this fenced-in world. All I ever wanted. I am free.
© 2014 Carrie Padian