Rain Continuing Tonight and Tomorrow ~ A Short Story by Allen Kopp
(Published in Writers’ Stories Magazine.)
Louise Eldritch didn’t have an umbrella. By the time she walked the six blocks from the bus station to the hotel, she was soaked through to the skin. She stood there, shivering a little and dripping water on the floor, while she signed her name to the register, a false name that came to her in the moment before she wrote it down. The night desk clerk smiled at her familiarly, as though he knew her. He had the same smile for everybody, no matter who they were.
“I have a nice room for you on the eighth floor, Miss Whitehead,” he said, reading the name off the register.
“It’s Mrs. Whitehead. Don’t you have anything on a lower floor?”
“Not cleaned and made up. With all this rain, you see, we’re short-staffed.”
“I guess the eighth floor will have to do, then.”
“It’s nice and quiet up there and you’ll have a fine view. The elevator is in working order, so you won’t have to walk up the stairs.” He handed her the key.
She took the creaking elevator up to the eighth floor. The door opened on a long carpeted hallway, silent and deserted. On the way to her room, she heard voices coming from behind the door to one of the rooms. She paused for a moment because something about the voices seemed oddly familiar; first a woman’s voice, pleading and crying, and then an angry man’s voice. There was the sound of breaking glass and the woman screamed. A different male voice, higher-pitched than the first one, yelled as if he was calling a dog and then the other two voices were stilled. She wondered if maybe someone was in trouble and needed help, but she had problems of her own and didn’t want to become involved in anybody else’s. She walked on to the end of the hallway.
Her room was as dreary as she expected. The walls were covered with faded green-and-brown wallpaper and the ceiling spotted with water stains. She turned on the lights and stepped out of her wet shoes and draped her jacket over the back of the desk chair. She took a towel from the bathroom and dried herself off the best she could. She longed to get into a tubful of hot water to try to soak the aches out of her body but she was just too tired. The day and a half spent travelling on the bus had taken its toll. She wanted only to sleep.
There was one window in the room and beside it a small door that opened onto a tiny fire escape landing. The window and door were both covered with a heavy green curtain, the kind that completely shut out the light. She pulled back the curtain and looked out at the rain, which hadn’t diminished and was, if anything, coming down heavier than before. She looked down the eighty feet or so to the street but couldn’t see much of anything, other than a streetlamp at the next corner and the lights of an all-night drugstore in the next block.
It could be any one of a thousand different towns in America. In the two days she had been traveling, she crossed several states lines and had lost track of where she was. If she had known the name of the town when she arrived there, she had forgotten it, but she derived a sort of perverse pleasure in not knowing where she was. If she didn’t know where she was, didn’t it follow that nobody else would know?
The room, for all its shortcomings, was warm and dry, and for that she was thankful. After she smoked a cigarette, she took off her clothes and got into the too-soft bed underneath the pile of peculiar-smelling covers and switched off the light. She could still hear the voices coming from down the hallway but underneath the soothing sound of the rain they seemed detached and far away.
She lay on her back in the dark for perhaps half an hour, smoking one cigarette after the other. As tired as her body was and as much as she needed to sleep, she knew she wasn’t going to go to sleep without a struggle. She had the sensation of still being in motion; her head reeled and she had a knot in her stomach. She got out of the bed and switched on the light and opened her suitcase and took out some pills, one to calm her down and another to make her sleep. She washed both pills down with a swallow from a bottle of Kentucky bourbon that she had bundled among her clothes to protect it from breakage.
While she had the suitcase opened, she took the diary out of a zippered compartment and opened it and sat down on the bed and held it open on her lap. The diary was for her more than just a book; it represented the end of her old life and the beginning of a new life, the kind of life she had always wanted.
In the diary, in Byron’s own handwriting, was his own confession. She didn’t know why he would confess in writing to having two business associates killed in five years, but that was just his way. He was thumbing his nose at the world. He believed he could get away with anything and outsmart anybody; he believed he was infallible. He kept the diary locked in a safe to which only he had access and he believed nobody would ever even know of its existence.
He slipped up, though, and she found the diary and read it, as wives sometimes will. She recognized it at once as a gold mine. Byron would pay a lot to get it back. She had wanted to get out of the marriage for years and now here was her chance, as if dropped into her lap from heaven.
When she got a safe distance away—and she didn’t know yet exactly where she was going—she would contact Byron and make him an offer. She would start at five-hundred thousand; she didn’t want to be overly greedy. That amount would be enough to keep her comfortably well-off for the rest of her life. She could travel and keep a nice apartment and have friends and give parties and never have to worry about anything; live the kind of independent life she had always wanted.
Byron would kill her too, though, of that she was certain. He would use any means at his disposal to get the diary back. She wasn’t certain that he hadn’t been following her or having someone else follow her—a hired killer, perhaps. For that reason she had taken a meandering course across four states, had changed buses five times, and had stopped at a dreary old hotel on the edge of nowhere—a place that wasn’t even on the map. She didn’t think she was being followed, but still one could never be certain of anything, especially when dealing with a man like Byron Eldritch.
Almost immediately the pills began to take effect and her eyelids began to feel heavy. She put the diary away carefully for safekeeping and got back into bed again. Soon she was asleep.
She dreamed she was walking along a flat country road. She didn’t know where the road was but it seemed somehow familiar, as if she remembered it from her far distant past. Looking down at her legs and feet, she saw they were covered with the dirt of the road.
As she walked along this road to an unknown or uncertain destination, she heard a car coming up behind her. She stopped walking and turned around and faced the car. She was interested in knowing who was driving, but apparently no one was, or, if there was a driver, he was invisible. An invisible driver didn’t make any sense, so it was easier to believe the car was moving on its own.
The car was bearing down on her and she had the sudden sickening realization that it meant to run her down in the road and kill her. When it was no more than thirty or forty feet away, coming toward her very fast, she jumped out of the way just in time and it went on past her in a cloud of dust.
She was awakened from the dream at that moment by a crash down the hallway, as of something being thrown against the wall, and then a scream. After that she could hear the voices, louder than before, as though the argument was still going on and had intensified. She tried covering up her head with a pillow but it was no use; she could still hear it. She got out of bed and turned on the light and picked up the receiver.
“Night clerk,” the voice said.
“There’s an argument going on down the hall from my room, loud voices and shouting, and it’s keeping me awake.”
“What room are you in?”
“Oh, yes. The eighth floor. I believe they’ve been celebrating. I’ll call them and tell them to keep it quiet.”
She heard the phone ringing faintly down the hall and the murmur of voices, followed by laughter and the slamming of a door, and then stillness. Whoever they were, they seemed to have finally stopped the arguing and settled down for the night. She switched off the light and covered up her head and went to sleep again.
It might have been ten minutes or an hour or two hours before a knocking on the door jerked her violently awake. She sat up in the bed, her heart pounding, uncertain for the moment where she was. When the knocking came again, she got out of bed and went to the door.
“Who is it?” she asked.
“Mr. Mendel calling for Mr. Sloan,” a raspy voice said.
“I said, ‘Mr. Mendel calling for Mr. Sloan’.”
“I don’t know who you are,” she said. “You’ve got the wrong room.”
“I need to see Mr. Sloan right away.”
“There’s nobody here by that name.”
“He said room 846.”
“You’ve got the wrong room.”
“There came one day a lovely box of flowers.”
“Will you let me in?”
“You’ve got the wrong room.”
“So you say, but can you give me a good reason why I ought to believe you?”
She heard a huff of breath and faint footsteps as the man turned from the door and walked away. A few seconds later she heard the elevator door open and close and then the faraway creaking as the elevator descended.
The next time she awoke she could still hear the rain, but underneath that was some other sound. She pushed back the covers and sat on the edge of the bed and stared into the darkness. It took a few seconds before she was awake enough to know that she had been hearing someone calling her name outside the door to her room, softly yet insistently. She went to the door and put her ear against it.
“Who’s there?” she asked softly. “Is anyone there?”
There was no reply but the unmistakable sound of someone breathing in air and letting it out again.
“Who is it?” she asked, louder this time. “What do you want?”
There was a long pause, after which a man’s voice said, “Aren’t you going to tell me I’ve got the wrong room?”
“Who is it?” she asked.
“What’s the point of asking such obvious questions?”
“I’ve got a gun and I know how to use it.”
The man laughed. “All right, all right,” he said. “No reason to get excited. So I’ve got the wrong room. No need to shoot me!”
She heard him walking away, followed by silence. She longed to open the door and look down the hall toward the elevator, but she was afraid he was playing a trick on her and when she opened the door he would force his way in.
She went to her suitcase and took from underneath the jumbled clothing the little .22 caliber handgun that Byron had given her in happier days when he traveled a lot and she was left at home to fend for herself. Having a gun nearby had always made her feel safer, even though she had never had any reason to fire it.
Clutching the gun to her breast, she got back into bed and sat against the headboard and pulled the covers up and stared into the darkness. The rain blew in gusts against the window. She went to sleep again.
She awoke to the phone ringing. She dropped the gun to the floor, forgetting she was holding it, and grabbed the receiver to silence the ringing.
“Yes?” she said, her voice breathless.
“This is the night desk clerk.”
“I wanted to ask you if you’ve been bothered any more by the guests on your floor. We always follow up on these things.”
“What time is it?”
“It’s exactly one-forty-seven, Central Standard Time.”
“There was a man knocking on the door a while ago. He was looking for somebody he thought was in this room.”
“Did you open the door?”
“If he comes back, don’t open the door. You never know who might be lurking about. We try to keep people out late at night who aren’t actually paying guests of the hotel, but sometimes they come in unnoticed for one reason or another.”
“Do you have the number of the local police force?” she asked.
“The police? What do you need to call the police for?”
“Well, I can’t say for sure. I have an uneasy feeling.”
“You don’t need to be calling the police, ma’am. I’ll be here all night, until seven or so, and if you’re bothered again pick up the phone and call me. Just don’t call the police.”
“I’m going to leave this place. I don’t feel safe here.”
“Where would you go in the middle of the night in the pouring rain? The dam might be breached and if it is this whole area could be under water. You wouldn’t even get a cab.”
“I’ll sit in the lobby or I’ll go to the all-night drugstore down the street and wait there until morning.”
“No need to do that, ma’am. Just go back to sleep. Everything will be all right.”
When she hung up the phone, her hands were shaking and she felt dizzy and short of breath. She took two more pills and drank the rest of the bourbon in the bottle.
Suddenly a pounding at the door brought her to her feet. She stared at the door in the darkness, as if expecting to see through it to the other side.
“Who’s there?” she asked.
This time a different male voice (with a hint of a foreign accent) said, “Open the door and stop fooling around!”
“I said ‘who’s there’?”
“If you don’t open this door, you’ll have to answer for it later.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s the middle of the night. I’m trying to sleep!”
“Do you know how silly that sounds?”
“You’ve got the wrong room.”
“If you know what’s good for you, you’ll open the door.”
For good measure, he pounded on the door again and kicked it with both feet.
She returned to the bed and pulled the covers up over her head, hoping to shut out any further disturbances. She longed to be at home where everything was certain and where nobody would dare bother her in the middle of the night. She was thinking about getting out of bed again and checking to make sure the door was double-locked, when the phone rang again. Unlike before, she let it ring ten or twelve rings before she picked it up.
“Yes,” she said groggily into the receiver, holding it several inches from her ear.
“You’re not fooling anybody,” a voice said quietly, followed by a click and the dial tone.
“Who is this?” she said, even though she knew no one was there. “Why are you doing this to me? What is it you want?”
When she hung up the phone, she felt ill and took two more pills to calm herself down. Unable to remember how many pills she had taken, she took two more. She then pulled all the covers off the bed and piled them on the floor and lay down on them and tried to cover herself up. She would make herself small on the floor underneath the bedclothes and no one would even know she was there. She would roll herself up in the corner and make herself invisible if that’s what she needed to do. She was more resourceful than people were willing to give her credit for.
There came then a rhythmic pounding on the ceiling and then on the wall behind the bed and then on the opposite wall. It was coming from every place at once and no place at all. She let out a scream and wrapped herself in the blankets on the floor like in a cocoon and covered her ears with her hands but she could still hear the pounding, loud and then soft like tapping and then stopping altogether and starting up again in a different place. When she could stand the pounding no longer, she stood up and made her way to the phone and picked up the receiver.
“Night clerk,” the voice said.
“What is that terrible noise?” she asked.
“This is the lady on the eighth floor, isn’t it?”
“Someone is bothering me, harassing me!”
“How so, ma’am?”
“It sounds as if someone is hitting on the walls and the ceiling with a lead pipe.”
“That’s just the plumbing, ma’am. Air gets trapped in the pipes. This is an old building. You hear all kinds of strange noises.
“It has to be something more than that.”
“Just try to ignore the sound and get some sleep, ma’am. Nobody is deliberately trying to bother you.”
“How can you be sure?”
“Good night, ma’am.”
The pounding continued for some time, growing louder and fainter and then stopping altogether. When all was quiet again, she went to the door and put her ear against it. She imagined she could hear blood coursing through the veins of whoever was standing there, just on the other side of the door. She wanted to call out to the person and ask who they were and what they wanted with her, but her own heart was pounding in her chest as if to strangle her and she seemed to lack the breath to get the words out. She backed slowly away from the door and, as she did so, the doorknob turned quietly one way and then the other. Someone was trying to come into the room.
She picked up her gun and, holding it in both hands, lay down again on the blankets on the floor and covered up, leaving only her eyes exposed.
From her vantage point on the floor she could see the crack underneath the door that admitted a sliver of light from the hallway; in that sliver she could see shadows as people moved silently back and forth, in and out. She had stopped trying to figure out who they were and what they were doing. She trained her gun on the door, holding it in both hands, ready to fire when needed.
She focused all her attention on the door for the remainder of the night, determined to stay awake to protect herself. She lay on the floor in the dark, listening to the rain, waiting for the next thing that was going to happen.
The pounding on the wall had stopped. People were no longer moving about in front of the door. There were no more phone calls, no more voices. She began to feel toward morning that everything was going to be all right. The awful night was almost over. She could get up in a while and get dressed and order some breakfast and catch the next bus out of town. With these thoughts in her head—and in this more relaxed state of mind—she fell into an exhausted sleep.
She had been asleep for only a few minutes when the door to the room opened slowly, without making a sound. A small sound—a footstep or a sigh or the clearing of a throat—woke her up. When she opened her eyes, she wasn’t terribly surprised to see two men in the room with her. They were wearing dark clothes and had no faces; they were only outlines in the dark. She reached for the gun but was unable to find it. She stood up and made her way around the bed to the far side of the room.
Standing in front of the door to the fire escape, she turned and looked at the men. They seemed for the moment to not know she was there. They weren’t looking at her but were instead intent on rifling through the clothes in her suitcase. She believed that when they turned their attention on her they would kill her, so she must somehow get out of the room. Since they were blocking the way between her and door, there was only one way out.
She opened the door and stepped out onto the tiny rain-slicked fire escape landing. She felt the cold sting of the rain on her face as she gripped the railing and looked down into the darkness for the steps that would lead her down to the ground and to safety. Hanging onto the railing with both hands she eased one foot down on the top step and then the other foot. When she stepped down to the next step, she misjudged the distance and her feet slipped out from under her. Try as she might, she wasn’t able to regain her footing. She held on for as long as she could but it was no use. The railing slipped from her hands and she was gone.
The awning over to the entrance to the hotel broke her fall. She was only knocked unconscious and would have survived if she had not fallen face-down into the water that had accumulated in the awning and drowned. Her body was discovered in the daylight and retrieved by firemen with hooks.
When interviewed by the police, the night desk clerk was voluble. Enjoying the unaccustomed attention, he disclosed everything he noticed about the woman. Something about her seemed terribly amiss. She seemed unusually nervous and appeared to have been drinking. He spoke to her several times in the night and she seemed distraught; believed somebody was bothering her for no reason. She complained about noise that only she seemed to hear.
After completing their investigation and establishing the identity of the woman, the police ruled her death a suicide with no indication of foul play. Since she had left no suicide note, maybe she hadn’t intended to commit suicide, but if that was the case what was she doing out on the fire escape before dawn in the rain? It was just one of those silly things that people do for which there is no logical explanation.
Copyright © 2011 by Allen Kopp