This is a contribution to the WFGC Hotel anthology blog home. A directory of other occupied rooms and stories can
If your goal in life is to avoid as much responsibility as possible then dish-washing might be the job for you. Like a lot of repetitive tasks there’s more of an art to it than you’d think, but if you’ve got two hands and a pair of rubber gloves then it won’t take you more than an hour to grasp the basics. Ern Malley had been washing dishes for such a long time that it actually gave him a headache to recall a time when he had done anything different.
“Focus on the suds,” he told himself. “Anything elsewhere ain’t your concern.”
His station was, rather predictably, planted in front of the sink in the big kitchen located in the very bowels of the hotel. The staff around him communicated in more languages than he could count on both rubber-gloved hands, but everybody spoke the universal language of curse words and pointing at things, so it all tended to work out fine. Ern actually found the constant chaos comforting. Whatever was happening, whether it was in the luxury suites or at the prep cook’s station right behind him, all Ern had to do was keep on scrubbing those plates.
It might have been a Monday. The trouble started an hour before he was due to clock off for the day and grab some sleep on the cot in the cleaning cupboard underneath the stairs. The shift manager, an uptight palooka named Brewer, was cruising the kitchen. He was obviously trying to be unobtrusive, an odd fit for a man whose sole reason for existence was to get in as many faces as possible. Ern didn’t mind it when Brewer lost his temper. When that happened, all you had to do was look down into the suds and scrub harder. Brewer genuinely trying not to cause a scene? Now, that was an unwelcome development.
“You,” he said as he walked in the general direction of Ern’s station.
Ern looked around to see who Brewer might be talking to. Whoever it was, he didn’t envy them. When he spotted the rest of the kitchen staff giving his area a wider berth than the site of a nuclear disaster, his heart sank. Brewer was looking for him.
“Ditch the gloves,” Brewer told him, pulling up a few paces away. “I got a job for you.”
“Me?” Ern repeated, furrowing his brow in confusion that was at least fifty percent sincere.
Brewer sneered. “Yeah, I got a something that requires a dishpig’s special set of skills.” He looked around at the rest of the staff, who had all abandoned their jobs in favour of watching the exchange. “You don’t got something better to do?” he asked them.
“Look,” Ern said as his colleagues pretended to busy themselves, “I’d love to help out, but I’m not exactly a welcome sight outside of the kitchen. Isn’t there someone front of house you could be asking?”
Brewer laughed. “I went through the logs the other day. You know what I found out? When it comes to reliability, you’re the man to beat. No sick days, no complaints, you turn up every day like clockwork and stay until the job is done.”
Ern didn’t say anything. He had a feeling Brewer had rehearsed this speech. He sighed inwardly as he started to peel off his gloves. They’d been on so long it was like shedding a second skin.
“So,” Brewer continued, “I need something done reliably, who am I to ask but the most reliable man in the building?” He beamed at Ern like this bit of circular reasoning deserved a round of applause. “What do you say?”
“What’s the job?”
If Brewer detected any reluctance on Ern’s part, he didn’t let on. “You know the new girl? Esther something. Pretty little blonde thing. She took an order up to the penthouse a few hours back and never returned. I want you to go and see what’s up.”
“That really sounds like something for security.”
“Oh sure. But I’m giving it to you.”
“No need to thank me. Might more interesting jobs coming your way if you don’t mess this up.”
Ern had never asked for anything, never indicated that he was looking for opportunities to prove himself capable of more, and now this officious idiot actually thought he was doing him a favour by throwing this into his lap. He fought the urge to bang his head against the sink. “Go up to the penthouse,” he repeated, “and retrieve Esther. That’s it?”
“That, as they say, is it. No excuses, no exceptions, just have her back in my office in an hour. Got it?”
Ern waited until he was in the elevator before swearing. As the floors lit up one after the other, tiny bulbs marking their ascent to the top of the building, he let loose with a torrent of obscenity that would have made a carnie blush. Washing dishes was, in his experience, the only simple job that actually stayed simple. The tinny elevator music played on a loop. He cursed his inability to ever say no to anything, ever.
He’d gotten a hold of himself by the time the door chimed open. The top floor. He’d never been up this high before. Truth be told, he was happy enough down in the basement that he barely ever had a reason to leave. Some of the people that passed through, staff and guests alike, had a strange look about them. They were people out of time and place, a harried cast to their features. The hotel did that to people. He’d long ago resolved not to let it get to him, to focus on the suds instead.
The door to the penthouse suite was ajar. Ern stood a moment. The same voice that had been urging him to tell Brewer to get lost chose that moment to speak up and let him know that, for whatever reason, calling out and making his presence known was not a good idea. He pushed the door and it swung silently inward. He gasped at the sight that greeted him.
Carnage. That was the only word to describe it. One corpse on the couch, another bleeding on the no-doubt expensive rug laid out in the middle of the room. He could see someone else’s feet poking out of the bedroom doorway, the rest of their body obscured. The cause of death was no mystery. Bullet holes riddle the ceiling, walls, and the bodies of all three corpses. There was a whirring sound coming from the direction of the coffee table, but that didn’t seem overly important. The dead blonde woman on the couch was still holding a rather serious-looking gun, and Ern had watched enough cop shows to know that the cylinder screwed onto the end of its barrel was a device for muffling gunshots. He blinked and turned around, swallowing hard as he moved to go back the way he’d come.
“Now,” the dead girl on the couch said as she suddenly appeared, very much alive, in front of the exit, “you have to promise not to scream.”
To his credit, he didn’t, but this was mainly due to the fact that it seemed like all the air had been siphoned from his lungs. He looked over his shoulder. The room was intact, the bullet holes and blood erased. He could feel one of his “this is why you never leave the basement” headaches coming on.
“You’re not seeing things,” the girl said, “but I don’t have time to explain. You see –“
The bedroom door burst open and two men came out with their guns blazing. Ern felt something hit his shoulder like a hammer, almost spinning him around. Something else struck his chest, then his stomach, and all of a sudden he was staring up at the ceiling. He blinked again.
And was back on his feet, exactly where he’d been a moment ago, the girl standing in front of him.
“You’re in the loop,” she told him, as if they hadn’t just been shot at by a pair of killers. “You’re going to die a lot more. Don’t worry, you get used to –“
This time Ern didn’t even feel the bullets before the blink.
“What’s happening?” he asked frantically, whirling around as he tried to watch both the girl and the door that he could have sworn the men had come out of just a moment ago. The room had reset itself once again.
“Duck, you idiot!”
The blonde leapt past him, shoving him out of the way. He stumbled back against the wall as the bedroom door opened once more. This time, the girl was quicker on the draw, bringing her gun up and pulling the trigger. There was a noise like two sheets of sandpaper rubbing together as chunks of wood and plaster were blasted from the doorway. The two men slumped to the ground, motionless, the weapons they’d been holding falling from their hands.
“You killed them!” Ern gasped.
She ignored him, throwing her own gun to the floor. Kneeling down by the coffee table, she opened the case that had been resting there. The whirring noise that Ern had noticed when he’d first entered the room grew louder.
Ern tried to catch his breath. “You’re Esther, right?” he asked.
The girl laughed. “Sure, if you like.” She sighed and reached up, running her fingers through her long blonde hair before grabbing her scalp and pulling. She grimaced as she threw her blonde wig onto the floor, revealing a short brunette bob beneath. “God, those things make you sweat!”
“You killed them,” Ern said weakly. He couldn’t look away from the two men the blonde had just left lying in a crumpled heap in the bedroom doorway.
She pointed at the case. “I started the loop when they went into the bedroom with the money. Just a precaution.” She sniffed. “I should have known they’d double-cross me.”
Ern took a step closer. The case was made of some pretty heavy-duty looking material, black and light-absorbent. Inside was some kind of mechanism that resembled the progeny of a three-way between a model train set, an antique clock, and a supercomputer. Just from laying eyes on it, he had no doubt that people would kill to acquire it, whatever the hell it actually was.
“Is that a time machine?” he asked, afraid that even asking would have terrible consequences.
The girl laughed, not looking up from her examination of the machine’s innards. “Not quite,” she answered.
“Is your name really Esther?
She shrugged. “If you want it to be.”
“I need to go. I mean, I really need to –“
“Come on,” the girl who’s name certainly wasn’t Esther said, “haven’t you ever wanted to tear back the veil? See what really makes the world tick?”
“I just want to wash dishes.”
She chuckled like he’d said something funny as she twiddled with some of the knobs and dials on the machine. “I need to reset the loop,” she said, for what Ern surmised was mostly her own benefit. “Just a second.” She bit her lip in concentration. “There!”
Ern felt his ears pop. He shook his head and nearly fell over. The girl who wasn’t Esther looked at him, suddenly concerned.
“Sit down,” she said, jumping to her feet and guiding him to the couch. “The first time you get looped is always a bit rough.”
He sat and held his head in his hands. “What’s going on?” he asked after a moment.
“Short version? I was trying to rob a bank vault on one of Jupiter’s moons. I must have messed up my calculations. I wound up here, my box wound up somewhere else. I took the job here until I could figure out who had the box and make an offer. Longer version? Well, I’m from another dimension, at least as best as I can tell. This place is weird. I think that –“
“Alright.” Ern held up his hand as he took a deep, shuddering breath. “Just give me a moment.”
“Come on, you never noticed it? The explosions, the assassins? The way nothing seems to stay the same for long? The tentacles?”
There was another blink and Ern found himself on his feet again, standing over the girl as she worked on her machine. “Was that a loop?” he asked.
“You got it.”
He pointed at the two gunmen, who had remained very dead through this latest transition. “Why didn’t they know they were in the loop?”
“They were part of it. You wandered into the middle of it. I mean, there’s more to it than that, but –“
“I get it. I think I need to get out of here.”
She sighed. “I’m not trying to break the laws of physics, if that’s what you’re worried about.” There was a beep as she pressed a button and a light started blinking green. “I just want to convince them to look the other way for a moment.”
The machine started whirring even faster. It seemed to hit Ern right in the chest, as if the fabric of reality itself was fluttering like a piece of paper. His ears popped continuously, as if someone were trying to inflate his head with a bicycle pump.
“Stop it, please!” he gasped.
The girl stood, balling her hands into fists. She looked over at him, her face a mask of glee. “Can you feel that?” she asked him.
The machine seemed to be trying to vibrate its way through the floor. It seemed to stay still while the whole building shook around them. A new noise joined the chorus, a high-pitched keening that set Ern’s teeth on edge. A pinprick of light appeared in the air above the machine, then flowered open into an intricate geometric pattern. Just to look at it made the bottom of Ern’s stomach drop out.
Suddenly everything went silent. The pattern floated in the air between Ern and the girl. Something about its existence, here or anywhere else in the universe, struck him as very, very wrong. If he concentrated hard, he could make out something in its centre.
“Well,” the girl said, “this is where I say goodbye.” She looked over at the two dead men. “Sorry to leave you with such a mess.”
“It’s alright,” Ern said, although he had no idea how he was going to explain this to anyone, much less Brewer.
The girl pursed her lips. “I don’t suppose you want to join me?”
“I really just want to wash dishes,” Ern said, but this time there was perhaps a little less sincerity in his voice. He couldn’t look away from the design traced in the air in front of him. It was growing larger, an aperture onto another world slowly opening. “What’s in there?” he asked.
“Terror. Beauty, too.” She smirked. “Probably still dishes that need washing.” She stepped forward, the white light seeming to engulf her. On the edge of evaporation, she reached back, offering him her hand. “What do you say? Want to be the first dishpig that goes intergalactic?”
A humming sound filled Ern’s ears as, slowly, he reached for her hand. The light brightened immeasurably, then faded. The room at the top of the hotel was left still and silent.
Ready for the next guest to arrive.