Chantal’s hands hovered over the stinking thing on the bedsheets. It was long and wet, the color of clay.
“Never seen a turd before?” snorted Meggy. She snapped a pair of latex gloves over her own hands, which were fat and leathery. “Gotta get used to some gross shit in this line of work, kiddo. Literally and figuratively.”
Meggy scooped up the turd and carried it into the bathroom. She set it in the toilet bowl and flushed. “There. All gone. Strip the sheets, Chantal.”
“Should we do anything special with them? Put them in a bag separate from the rest of the linens?”
“This ain’t the Hilton, sweetie.” Meggy chuckled. “We use strong bleach. It’ll be fine.”
Chantal dutifully stripped the hotel bed of sheets and pillowcases. She worked them all into a neat bundle and dumped everything in the laundry bag on the side of the housekeeping cart. She took fresh linens from the cart’s bottom shelf and re-made the bed. She tried to breathe only through her mouth; the smell of the turd still hung in the air. It was an odor like rotting leaves and bad teeth.
“Good,” said Meggy, watching. “Nice hospital corners. You’ll be ready to strike out on your own tomorrow, I think. Gonna tell Andrea.”
“Really?” It was stupid, Chantal knew, to feel a flush of pride and excitement. This was a terrible job. Still. You had to take your dopamine rushes where you could get them. Meggy smiled. “Why don’t you show me just how fast you can do the rest of this room by yourself?” She planted her hands on her broad hips, leaned forward a little, and groaned. “My back’s killing me. Gonna sneak out for a smoke real quick, then start on 9B.”
Meggy left, rubbing the small of her back through her worn polyester uniform. Chantal began dousing the bathroom in pastel pink and blue spray cleaners. Their harsh chemical stench battled the lingering ghost of the turd for supremacy.
Chantal was a lot more efficient at cleaning than she’d been a week before when she’d started working at the Kingdom Immanent Deluxe Motor Inn. But she had nothing on Meggy, who had to be at least sixty and who had, as she’d told Chantal several times, been employed as a housekeeper since she was Chantal’s age.
Meggy was vacuuming 9B's threadbare carpet when Chantal caught up with her. She winced every time she had to bend her back a certain way. “You got the keys?” she asked.
“Go on to 10B. Make yourself useful.” Meggy’s abundant but ill-cared-for gray curls were starting to straggle out of their bun and hairnet. They swayed over her bloodshot eyes.
Chantal pushed the cart forward so it sat between the doors of 9B and 10B. Across the outside walkway around the second story of the motel, someone was leaning on the paint-flaking iron railing. They were watching Chantal. She squinted, but she couldn’t make out their face; whoever it was wore a broad-brimmed, elegant hat, like something out of an old movie. Incongruously, they had on a black tracksuit and black knitted gloves, even though it was summer.
Chantal decided the best course of action was to ignore the strange figure. Kingdom Immanent attracted some real shady types.
She knocked on the door to 10B and loudly said, “Housekeeping!” She waited a moment. When no one responded, she unlocked the door. She glanced back across the walkway, but the black-clad person was gone.
10B was about as neat as the rooms ever were. The bedsheets were rumpled and the window was slightly open. The TV remote lay facedown on the floor. The air smelled faintly like copper, or rust. No tip left on the nightstand, unfortunately, but easy work.
Chantal went into the bathroom. Off-white tile, no towels disturbed. The toilet paper still folded into a neat triangle at the end of the roll, like the guest hadn’t even had to take a dump.
Chantal’s eyes wandered to the bathtub. It was full of something. Bloody and soft, folded and twisted around on itself so many times Chantal couldn’t determine its proper shape.
It reminded Chantal of a buck she’d once seen in the middle of shedding his antler velvet. Bone-branches red and clotted with gore; flesh-shreds dripping off their prongs, like mottled, moldy ribbons. Skin peeling around the base of the antlers and flopping down over the deer’s narrow, beautiful face.
There was much too much something for it to be antler velvet, unless deer could grow big as houses.
Chantal decided to fetch Meggy. There had to be something she was missing, some fact that would render the soft, bloodied mound mundane. Meggy would know.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Meggy, as she looked inside the bathtub.
“Ever seen anything like it?” asked Chantal.
“Nope,” said Meggy. She sounded more intrigued than disgusted. With a hearty grunt, she squatted beside the tub and reached inside to touch the thing with her bare hands. “It’s warm,” Meggy announced.
Chantal shuddered. Meggy’s hand was smeared with sanguineous red.
“You know what this reminds me of?” Meggy continued to poke and prod. She didn’t look at Chantal.
“Ha! No. Reminds me of these old folktales my dad used to read me when I was a little girl. Years and years and years before you was a twinkle in your parents’ eyes, of course. Some of them were about these people that could change shape by taking off their skin and putting on a different one. They’d have to hide the skin they weren’t wearing, leave it someplace safe while they did their business so nobody’d steal it.”
“It wasn’t really,” said Meggy.
“But those are just stories,” Chantal pressed. “Someone could have been hurt here, right? We should do something. What should we do?”
The rust smell seemed to get stronger and heavier by the instant. Chantal was sure it came from the tub. She felt lightheaded.
“Get out of here,” said Meggy. Her voice wasn’t unkind. “Go and fetch Andrea from her office. I’ll stay.”
Chantal couldn’t comply with Meggy’s order fast enough.
She didn’t run, although she wanted to, but she did walk quickly, swinging her arms and taking big, emphatic breaths. She didn’t burst through the door to Andrea Cordello’s closet-sized lair, but she did push it open without knocking.
“Something’s in the bathroom of 10B,” Chantal started.
Ms. Cordello looked up from a pile of paperwork with an irritated expression.
“There’s a lot of blood,” said Chantal, hating the discrepancy between the fact of what she’d witnessed and her verbal powers of description. “There’s like...part of an animal, maybe. You’d better come and see. Meggy’s up there now.”
“A dead animal?” Ms. Cordello frowned as she stood up.
“Something like that, ma’am.”
“Lead the way,” said Ms. Cordello, and Chantal did.
The door to 10B still stood open a little. Ms. Cordello began to step inside, then froze. She withdrew her foot from the doorway and stood once more on the concrete walk.
Chantal peered over her supervisor’s shoulder. Meggy was nowhere in sight. The room was steamy, as though someone had just taken a long, hot shower.
A plump, pretty young woman sat naked on the bed. Her long hair covered everything indecent, and she didn’t seem embarrassed by the other women’s presence in the least. Chantal felt her face flush with shame.
“It’s all right!” said the woman. Her curls spread out on the bed around her thighs. “Is there something I can do to help you?”
Ms. Cordello gently closed the door. “I was informed the occupant of this room was out,” she called. “One of the housekeepers reported a dead animal in your bathroom. I’m sorry to ask, but—would you know anything about that?”
“No,” said the pretty woman. “I’m sorry.” A muffled, musical laugh. “Believe me, I’d be the first to complain if that was the case. There’s nothing in the bathroom except soap and steam. You can come in and look if you want; I’ll put on a towel.”
“No, no,” said Ms. Cordello. “There must have been some mistake. We’re sorry to bother you. I’ll send a housekeeper by again later to service your room. Unless you’d prefer not to be disturbed.”
“I swear—” said Chantal. Her head spun. “Look,” she began again, desperate, “I’ll try the rooms next door. I know what I saw. Meggy saw it, too. She’s around here somewhere, waiting.”
“Make it quick,” said Ms. Cordello. “Don’t waste my time.”
9B was immaculate, devoid of velvet gore and Meggy alike. 11B was trashed and filthy, with nothing in the tub but a wet mat of hair escaping into or out of the drain. Meggy wasn’t in there, either.
Chantal wasn’t really surprised by Meggy’s absence. She was surprised when Ms. Cordello didn’t fire her on the spot, or even chew her out much.
“Don’t come to my office with nonsense like this again,” she told Chantal. “I’ll ask you once more: do you know where Meggy went?”
“I don’t know. Honest to God.”
“She’d better not have quit,” Ms. Cordello said, more to herself than to Chantal.
“I don’t think she would—not like this. Not Meggy. But you never know. I promised I wouldn’t lose any more girls this year. I can’t afford—” she broke off and ran a hand through her sensible bob. “Chantal!”
Chantal’s spine straightened. “Yes, ma’am?”
“You’ll be good on your own for the rest of today, right? You can handle what’s left of the second floor?”
“I think so, ma’am.”
“Excellent,” Ms. Cordello said. “You get back to your work, and I’ll get back to mine.”
Through the door to 10B, Chantal heard a voice singing words she couldn’t make out. She shivered for no good reason. The air was very warm and starting to get humid as the day advanced.
When Chantal had almost finished up in 11B (where, despite or because of the immense mess, she pocketed a $5.75 tip), she heard the distinct sound of the door to 10B opening, then closing. She heard footsteps moving away. It sounded like two people walking together.
Chantal stuck her head through the door of 11B just in time to see the couple’s backs descending the stairs. There was the pretty woman, now wearing a satin dress that was (in Chantal’s opinion) much too tight. Her wide hips and ass swayed and wriggled under her veil of hair. She was arm in arm with the figure dressed all in black Chantal had seen earlier. The person still wore their hat and gloves; Chantal could see no sliver of bare flesh poking out anywhere.
“Meggy?” Chantal called.
Neither of them stopped or turned around.
Soon, she heard a car start in the parking lot. Then she heard it drive away.
It was still light when Chantal got off work. That was the nice thing about summer. At the bus stop, she looked up at the sunset. She looked out at the road. She looked down at her sneakers, which had a crusty, reddish-brown material stuck conspicuously to their laces.
She hadn’t noticed that before. Maybe it was shit. Maybe it was dried blood. Maybe it was just dirt.
Chantal sucked the end of her cigarette and decided against making a closer investigation.
Eventually the bus came to take her away, and she put out her cigarette and got on.
Briar Ripley Page is the author of Corrupted Vessels, a queer, surreal Southern Gothic novella with swallow::tale press. Their short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in venues including beestung, smoke + mold, BONEMILK, and The Book of Queer Saints. Briar can be found online at briarripleypage.xyz, and in real life on a big rainy island.
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