The Alabaster Sock

We Will Fight the Threat with Fighting

(Chapter XVII)

Posted by Matt on February 18, 2011

Previously

Weeks passed at the hotel. It was home, now and forever; thus was Aia’s mindset. The time before was a bad dream, a vaporous thing, a thing she can leave behind without hesitation. It wasn’t long before she knew her neighbours on, above, and below the second floor just as well as she did the ones from before, in that ugly, creaking park. She knew the people in charge here far better than the ones before, too (or she was convinced she was). She no longer had to worry about food, about Pearl, about failing the people around her. Life was finally life for her, no longer a dominating paranoia, a confrontation with the great unknown, or a oversimplified wait for the end to come. The worries were finally gone, for the first time since Brother Sal left her. Aia was happy.

Pearl and her were surprised one day when they came to visit the old man and saw his room in complete disarray. He was there rummaging through drawers, closets, and everything else not nailed down. He seemed to be in a hurry.

“I’m outta here” he told them, “I’m jus’ lookin’ to see if I have any valuables left in here that I should take before I go. I can’t remember for the life of me if I do, but it’d be a good idea to check”

“Why are you going?” Pearl asked.

“Look: I’ll tell you something that I’ve known for a while but kept to myself: you know the guy who runs the hotel, the guy in the black jacket? He’s nuts. He’s completely off his rocker. I know what he’s up to. He’s obsessed with building his own little perfect community here. Do you know why?”

“No”

“It’s because he wants to get back at the park. They kicked him out, I can’t really remember why, and he’s still sore about it, so now he’s going to have his own little kingdom that’ll be a better community in his crazy mind. That’s why they let everyone in with open arms, why they do everything possible to make life here as comfortable as possible. They don’t want anyone to leave. But even if they try, he’s not gonna let them.”

They both asked him how he knew this.

“I got my ways. But you know what the real kicker is? He’s got eyes all over this place. Every single room is bugged. He can see what everyone is doing at any time. I didn’t take that junk at the park, and I’m certainly not taking it here. If I were you, I’d do the same. They probably aren’t expecting anyone to go now, so they have no one paying attention. Once one gets out, though…”

They ask him how he plans on getting out.

“I know of a fire escape in the basement, where they don’t have a working camera. I found it around the time I first got here. It’s about the only thing I’ve been able to remember, ’cause I knew that it was going to come in handy one day”

They ask him where he plans on going.

“Anywhere but here. I know there’s a couple other hotels around the island, and maybe some folks have gone to those, and maybe they’re less kooky. Don’t know for sure, but I know it’ll be better than this”

He stops for a second, and then heads towards the door.

“You know what? I got nothin’ worth salvaging. You two take care”

And then he was gone. This whole situation came as a shock to both. All this time they had talked to him, swapped stories, got to know eachother so well…THIS came out of nowhere. They stood in his shredded former abode silently, wondering what to make of all this.

Aia had a hard time believing what he said was true. They had met the manager, and he seemed to be a very nice person, if slightly detached. There’s no way he could really be an obsessive madman, could he?

Up until this point, she had never really put much thought into the stories the old man told them. They could be true, but could just as easily be the delusions of someone who had been around for years. And she remembered what he said about being away from The Maker, and how it could make people go crazy. What if that was true? That would everything the he said about the world questionable…including the things about The Maker. At the same time, if it is true, that could mean the manager could have gone over the deep end as well. If its true at all. She had no real way of knowing. It was all very confusing…so many possibilities.

But then she thought about the cameras. She had experience with them before. They ruined her life. She had as much reason to hate and fear them as he did. What if they were in every room, watching them constantly? She most certainly was not comfortable with something like that. If it was true.

As concerned as she was about these possible revelations, however, she came to conclude that it didn’t matter to her. So what if the leader was insane and wouldn’t let them leave? What reason would they have to leave? They liked it there. It provided them with everything they needed. More than the outside, and even more than the park. Pearl finally had a home where she could have the life she needed and deserved. The cameras, the loss of mobility…little discomforts for her, but those negatives did not outweigh the benefits of staying. If those negative things were true.

She knew she would have a hard time not questioning this decision in her own mind if she had entertained even the faintest possibility of the old man’s suspicions being true. So, she decided that, indeed, he was the one who was crazy. Despite all the times he’d talked to them, shared his time with them, and became part of their daily routine, he always seemed a little off. There was as much reason to believe he was just suffering from some sort of delusion as there was to believe that they were being watched all the time by the hotel operators. That would mean disregarding almost everything he told them about the park, but that’s a small sacrifice. She had no real attachment to those revelations, and was always a little wary of their authenticity. But if none of it is true, just an outpouring from a diseased mind…oh well. They still had everything else in their current existence to enjoy. And with that in place, she could easily go on living there without a moment second-guessing.

She was satisfied with her decision making, and seemed to walk back to their room with a spring in her step. For once, she wasn’t going to let something like this ruin everything she had. She knew what she did was for the best.

Things changed as soon as they entered their room and shut the door behind them.

“I don’t like this place anymore” Pearl said. It sounded as if her melancholy had returned, and at the worst possible time, for the worst possible reason.

“What do you mean?”

“The man said the man in the suit wasn’t going to let us leave!”

“But we aren’t going to leave”

“But why would he do that?”

“How do we know he will do that?”

“The man said so”

“But what makes you so sure he’s right?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, he is very old, and he is very good at making up stories…”

“Why would he make it up? He’s been telling us all about the times before, why would he make something up now?”

“How do you know he didn’t make those stories up as well?”

“Because he wouldn’t lie to us. Lying is bad, and he’s not bad”

It dawned on Aia that Pearl may have been taking those stories a lot more seriously than she did. This was a dilemma. She seemed very troubled by this supposed truth, and Aia tried her best to find some way to convince her to think of it differently. But she couldn’t; she couldn’t even lie about it. Because, in the end, Pearl was right: how DID she know for sure?

“You really want to leave?”

“Yeah! I don’t want to be watched all the time, and I don’t like living with someone bad”

“But we have such a nice home here, and we have all our new friends and everything we need…”

“It’s not good anymore. I don’t want to be here”

Aia could feel her mind crack. Her prayers had been answered when she found the hotel. Finally, a good home for HER. This was all for her. But now…she wants something else. Something that can hurt her. Can’t she realize that it would probably be better just to stay? But how could she make her do something she didn’t want to do? This is all for her. Everything is for her. Oh, you righteous little sweetheart, why are you doing this to me? Why are you doing this to yourself? Aia couldn’t believe this was happening. Not again.

“You’re really sure about this? You want to go back outside?”
“I just don’t want to be here”

Aia kept trying to think of better arguments, better ways to reassure her that everything was really all right, really. She couldn’t let it all end so suddenly, not after all the hardship. Not while she knew the hardship that was to come if they were to leave. There had to be some way she could convince her, to make her feel better. That’s what she was supposed to do. That’s what Brother Sal would do. But she was no Brother Sal. Her frustration was becoming all-consuming. She was frustrated with that paranoid cretin putting these ideas in Pearl’s head, frustrated with Pearl for buying into those delusions, frustrated with herself for being unable to temper the situation, frustrated even with Brother Sal for not properly preparing her for a moment like this, as unlikely as it was. She wished she could just put her foot down, to be a Big Sister, take the responsible route and just say ‘No’. Pearl may be hurt now, but eventually…

…She then looked at directly at Pearl for the first time since their conversation began. She saw once again her wilting vigour, her entire state of being darkened absolutely. Pearl stared back, wide-eyed, desperate to hear her guardian say that they were going away from this awful place. It didn’t matter if the danger wasn’t real; her fear was. It pierced Aia unlike anything else. This was what she had wanted to avoid all this time.

She couldn’t say no. She couldn’t. Everything was for Pearl. Even if she knew it would be better to refuse, to tell Pearl to suck it up and learn to take every blessing you have, she couldn’t. She couldn’t force her to do anything she didn’t want to do….she just couldn’t. That’s never how it worked in their family, and it’s not how it will work now. Better judgement be damned, she had to do what Pearl wanted. They had to go.

“Okay. Then we’ll go”

They decided, just to be safe, to take the exit the old man had told them about. They had seen the entrance to the basement during their daily walks; in was in the same hallway as the dining room, at the southern end. On it was a big sign that read ‘Dangerous – Staff Only’. It wasn’t locked. They walked up and down the hall, trying to look like they were having a normal, everyday conversation about little things to keep the coming and going staff from getting suspicious. Aia was tense, always holding the creeping dread that something would go wrong, that someone would see them pacing and wonder what they were doing. But it didn’t matter where they were and what else they were doing; as long as it looked and sounded like their minds were on other things, the staff wouldn’t notice anything odd; nor would they risk annoying anyone by butting into their conversations to ask if they needed anything. It was just after dinner, and all the other residents had left. The staff was cleaning up, picking up the plates and silverware and taking them to the kitchen. They would be finished soon, and as soon as the last ones were gone, they would make their move.

The whole thing went off without a hitch. After a dozen or so staff waddled from the room with a stack of plates, Pearl checked the room, and said there was nothing left on the tables. This was their sign that the coast was clear. Quickly, the two crept over to the door, eyes firmly on the entrance to the lobby to make sure no one was entering. As soon as their backs were up against the door, Aia quickly opened it, they shuffled in, and closed it. Perfect.

It all seemed too easy to Aia, who was expecting an escape like this to be a nerve-racking challenge. On the other hand, she didn’t even really know if there was any real danger in it. It was all going on assumption at this point. She decided she had better not jinx it, and thought nothing more of it.

There was a set of blackened wooden stairs that led down into the basement, fully visible to them with a hanging light that was already on. The old man must have left it for them. It was strange how dank and grey the place was, considering how bright and welcoming the whole of upstairs was. Apparently, the staff didn’t really expect anyone to come down here, so they had no reason to decorate it. They slowly walked down the steps, scanning the whole grey, concrete dungeon for the fabled exit. They could hear rhythmic dripping coming from somewhere below.

After they stepped off the last rickety wooden plank and into the gloomy underground, they checked all sides. They could see the entrance to another room on one side, with a sign above it advertising that it was the boiler room. By the wall near the stairs, they saw dusty cardboard boxes, filled with nothing they could make out, stacked up like great towers. One of the towers had toppled over (the comparison to the outside was made almost immediately in both their minds), spilling bundles of yellowed paper and other kinds of detritus across the cracked, oil-stained floor. It was the westernmost side that seemed more promising: at the end of a hallway lined with buckets, mops, and pools of water, there was another door, with a metallic sign above it, flashing red symbols they couldn’t read at them. Nonetheless, it had to be the one.

They moved glacially towards their goal, trying not to make any noise at all (not that anyone would likely hear it, but you can never be too careful). It seemed to take years for them to finally inch towards the door, the red sign lighting their way. First they checked it: it wasn’t locked. They pushed it open, and saw another set of steps. They were weathered stone, eroded from years of rain, painted with bright green moss, and emanating eons of abandonment. Light beamed down from above; this was the exit all right. They scaled the old stones, the beams fanning out wider and growing ever brighter the higher they went, until it became blinding. Soon enough, they could see the sky again, and the destruction. Outside again. Homeless again.

Aia sighed. To Pearl, it probably sounded like a sigh of relief. But it wasn’t. Aia had to once again accept the life of a drifter in a rotting land, something she thought she had left behind for good. She had to revert to her survival logic, and take on another desperate search for another home. It was a thousand different little disappointments at once. But there was nothing else she could do. This is what was happening.

“I’m sorry we had to leave” Pearl said. “I know you really liked it there”

“It’s all right” Aia replied with a lifeless monotone. She didn’t want to give Pearl the impression she really was disheartened by the whole thing, but this time, she failed.

“Do you think we can find somewhere else to stay?”

“I’m sure we can” Aia’s voice started to pick up, gradually regaining its ability to mask what she was actually thinking.

“Where do we go now?”

“There might be another hotel like this one, only better, hopefully. I’m sure if we look around for a little longer, we can find it”

And they started walking again, into the dead world. As much as Aia hated going back to it, she knew she had to convince herself it was for the best. It was for her. But was it? She thought she knew the answer, but decided to ignore it. It was of no use now.

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