Every Light in The Room
Jean had planned to leave for the conference a week in advance, and a month before that, decided to drive instead of flying. The Biological Science’s Department approved the budget because driving was only slightly less cost-effective that a plane ticket a Friday morning plane ticket, and they picked out a the rental. It was her first conference, and Jean had never been to California before. It was a treat from the department for attending meetings without complaint, maintaining good rapport with her students, and not making any outrageous budget approval requests at the last minute, like this one. The drive would be leisurely. Jean would pay for half of the one-night budget hotel room rentals along the way, return the car in San Francisco and then fly home.
Arizona and New Mexico were a breeze, but getting through California turned out to be the least exciting and the most tedious. The traffic in Los Angeles made her eyes burn, and Jean regretted the Pacific Coast Highway about an hour into it.
The lanes were narrow, and cars hid around corners only to dart in front of at the last minute and speed ahead. Pedestrians moved across the zebra crossings, assuming the cars would stop in time.
Jean pulled off the highway and re-routed her GPS. The new directions would pull her back into a knot of smaller freeways, but lead her to Interstate 5. The map on her phone showed a single, strong line of road cutting right up the middle of California.
The snarl of afternoon traffic in Los Angeles County took about three hours to get through, and the sun way setting by the time she reached Interstate 5, her savior. All she had to do was talk to her phone and the voice-recognition would suggest a hotel in a small town called Arvin.
She got there by nine o’clock, an hour before the front desk closed. The hotel rooms were a series of bungalows lined up next to each other in a row, like in an old movie. The man at the front desk spoke with a slight accent. It could have been Spanish, except for the way he said.
The man smiled, took her credit and card and gave her a key. “You are room number six”, he said. “Do you need help with your bags?”
“No, I’m fine, thanks,” Jean said.
“All right, ma’am. Breakfast in the lobby is from seven to nine a.m. Our only request is that you limit water usage because we are in a drought, and turn off all lights when you are not using them.”
The room’s decor was an generic as Jean expected and the beds weren’t great, but Jean had a knack for being able to sleep anywhere. Buses, airplanes, the backseat of a car; she was an expert somnambulist. She may wake up with an ache in her neck, but getting asleep was never going to be a problem.
Jean plugged in her cell phone before she got into bed, the conference materials in hand and turned on the light by her nightstand. There would be a whole panel about “super bugs”, those strains of antibiotic resistant bacteria. Staph infections, MERSA and maybe more were coming our way soon. One theory was that theses diseases were growing stronger, overpowering modern medicine. One of the speakers believed the bacteria had simply found a loophole, an unchecked crack in the antibiotics’ barrier to slip through. The bacteria was evolving to its environment, by growing smarter, stronger, or maybe both the way humans had.
Scientists had been working on this long before it hit the nightly news. Jean could remember how in her child and teen years she would feel such reassurance at news like this. There would be some medical or environmental crisis, and all someone had to say was that scientists were working on it. This meager verbal reassurance from a news anchor or spokesperson was enough to give an entire population a collective sigh of relief.
Jean turned the light off, and went to bed. It was pitch black in the room, and Jean couldn’t see anything. She didn’t know how much time had passed before she became aware of two hands pressing on her shoulders. Before panic set it, Jean considered that this may be dreaming. This could all be dream. All she had to do to end this nightmare was fall asleep again (in her dream).
Something akin to fingers brushed against her collarbone. It took a moment for Jean to realize that the calloused pads were covered in something soft, and tipped with something sharp.
Fur and claws on a pair of hands, Jean thought. This is a dream.
A car alarm went off outside, with flashing headlights and the hands jerked away. Jean heard rustling in the room, then silence. The car alarm stopped and Jean lay still, waiting for a sign that this part of the dream was over, or that she was on her way to waking up. Jean had had lucid dreams before, but she felt disoriented. Was she awake? Did her car’s alarm, parked right outside her room, get triggered? Did the car wake her up in real life or in her dream? In her foggy state, it became too much of an effort to figure out the answer. Jean concluded it must have been a dream, because she wanted the thing that was touching her to go away with all her might, and when you wish for something to happen while you’re dreaming, they usually do.
Nonetheless, Jean woke very well rested. When you’re so great at sleeping, it’s easy to recognize when you’re dreaming, Jean assumed, and send yourself back to REM mode. She opened the door to the bathroom, ready for a shower before breakfast. Jean noticed that she left the lights above the vanity mirror on.
The man at the front desk was in the lobby, setting out the breakfast. “Good morning, I hope you slept well!” the man said. He looked tired, and his smile was forced.
“It was great, I can sleep anywhere,” Jean smiled back.
“Will you be staying with us another night?”
“No, I’m trying to make it to San Francisco.”
“Ah, well, I hope you come back soon and leave us a nice review.”
As he walked away to refill the orange juice pitcher, Jean noticed the man had a slight limp. A handful of people filtered in and out of the lobby for breakfast. A 24-hour news channel played on a mounted flatscreen TV at with low volume and with subtitles, just how Jean liked to watch shows.
Jean leaned over her styrofoam bowl of cereal for a spoonful. Something fell out her hair, and was now floating in the milk. Jean picked it out between her thumb and forefinger. It looked like a patch of shed snake skin, thin as an onion peel and uniquely pebbled. She put in on her white square of paper napkin so the milk could soak away.
Jean swallowed hard to suppress that gag in her throat. She got up to throw away her cereal and poured a cup of coffee instead. When her stomach settled, Jean examined the skin more closely. It was more like a lizard’s shed skin that a snake’s. It had deep grooves and no uniform patter. The milk now almost dried, Jean could see small fibers around the edge of the skin. It was a distinct gray, so it couldn’t be stray fibers caught from the white paper napkin.
Jean folded the napkin and carried it with her to her room, and started to pack. She had just put away her toiletries when there was an anxious knock at the door. The front desk man was there, his face looking even more worried and tired.
“Miss, I’m so sorry,” he stammered out.
“What is it?”
“It’s your car. I’ve already called the mechanic. His shop opens Monday.”
Jean walked outside to the pebbled parking lot. There were pools of green and black liquid under the car, and deep scratches along the bumper and headlights.
“What. . . .How?” Jean managed to sputter.
“I really don’t know. Some kids, miss. My wife can go now to take you to the nearest rental place, but you need to go with her now. The hotel is fully insured, we will cover all costs. Don’t worry, we’ll get you out of here.”
“It’s really fine.”
“My conference isn’t for another few days. Can I just see what the repairs would be? Maybe it can be fixed before I need to go.”
“I really don’t think so, not based on what I told the mechanic.”
“But the car is in my name. I don’t think the rental company will authorize any repairs unless it’s done with their approval, and I will need to make a statement. I don’t have time to get back down here after the conference.”
“I promise you miss, I will take care of everything for you. We will reimburse you for your stay as well.”
“Don’t you have security cameras?”
“I thought every hotel nowadays have security cameras. I bet the the car rental place will want to see some footage, and so will your insurance company.”
“We will cover any of your expenses, even if the insurance refuses to cover it.”
“Has this sort of thing has happened before, where a customer’s property is damaged, you submit an estimate of how much it will cost and get reimbursed?”
“I promise, miss, we aren’t trying anything funny here. We’re very sorry about what happened and want to send you on your way.”
Jean studied the man for a moment. “I don’t think I got your name.”
“It’s James Calloway.”
“James, Calloway with two l’s?”
“How about this: I stay one more night. Monday morning, I go talk to the mechanic and then I go get my new rental.”
James jaw twitched. “If you really want to stay, we can provide you with accommodations for tonight, but there really isn’t much to do here.”
“I’m sure I can find something.”
“I understand. If you will come back with me to the lobby, I can give you some pamphlets about our town center and nature trails.”
“Right this way. Almost everything here is within walking distance, too.”
James limped back inside the hotel lobby, Jean behind him. James scanned the row of pamphlets displayed near the front desk.
“Here you go miss. Again, I’m terribly sorry for this inconvenience,” James said as he handed her a stack of glossy, folded paper.
Jean winced inside at his sincerity, and almost felt guilty. “It’s really no big deal. I’m not in a hurry, and I know kids do dumb stuff.”
“Yes. Sometimes they act up around here. There’s not a lot to do, so they have to make their own fun.” James relaxed a little. “Have a nice day in town, miss. Also, thank you for humoring our “lights out” policy.”
Jean‘s light-weight tennis shoes and jeans weren’t the best clothes to wear for a hike, but the trail was flat and not too rocky. After that, she passed through downtown pretty quickly. There was one combination convenience store and gas station, and a cafe that served store-bought pastries and regular coffee. The small tourist trap shops either sold dubious antiques or garden decorations: plaster frogs, gnomes, fairies and wind chimes.
Maybe she should have taken James’ offer to get out of here as soon as possible. When she got tired of wandering around a dusty trail, she’d just have to go back to her room to watch TV or grade papers to kill time.
She lasted until five o’clock. One and a half hours until sundown. Only a few more hours until she could fall asleep. With a bag of gas station food items, she headed back to the hotel. The car was already towed away, the leaking fluids stained the pebbled space where it was parked. It wasn’t quite starting to get dark yet, but a few moths were already batting around the light above her hotel room door.
Back inside her room, Jean chewed on gas station lamp-warmed, personal pizza and read from her conference notes. On the particle board dresser was the napkin from breakfast this morning. The dried milk made sure the thin piece of tissue stuck to it. It was dry and brittle now. In the morning, she would put it in her hard glasses’ case. It would remain in tact there until she returned to the university.
Jean made sure the window in the hotel room was shut and locked before the lights in the bathroom were off. Her laptop was unplugged and tucked away in its case. The lamp on the nightstand was turned off, and then everything was dark.
Jean found herself staring straight ahead in the middle of the night unsure as to why she was awake, but then she heard the breathing. It was loud, but it wasn’t the labored breathing of a human. It was the loud inhales and exhales of large animal, taking large gulps of oxygen to power it’s body and taste the air.
Jean lay perfectly still while her eyes adjusted to the dark. Soon she could make out the large, upright shape of a creature hunched over the foot of the bed.
She thought she heard a car door open. A pair of headlights switched on, but it was parked too far away. The light didn’t reach her room to distract the creature the way her rental car did the night before. She couldn’t make out the thing’s eyes, but Jean knew it was staring right at her. She heard a car door open again, and then someone running, the car’s lights still on.
From the corner of eye, Jean saw the tiny blue circle of light from her nightstand. She’d plugged in her cellphone for the night, and set an alarm time. It was the only light in the room.
Jean knew it was too late before she even reached out to unplug it or flip it over, anything so the light would disappear. The bed dipped under the new weight that was now crushing her and air rushed in her ear, like she was standing next to a plane ready to take off. Far off in the distance, she heard a man’s voice, one with a slight accent, shouting at her to turn off the lights, all of them, please miss.