I have an odd habit a friend recently picked up on, a habit I developed about a year ago. He noticed that when I enter a room, any room, and shut the door, I turn my face away from it and close my eyes until I hear the lock click. Only after the door is fully closed will I open them. He gave me a hard time about it until I told him where it started.
I work for a water-seal company in St. Paul. We produce sealant for exposed wood — decks, boats, that kind of thing. You hear about sealant being a dirty word in the Ashland-Ichor Falls-Ironton area, but not all those companies were part of the infamous “Ethylor summer” that wiped out the local economy in the ’50s. I got sent to an industrial park outside of Ichor Falls on business.
I checked into this dismal hotel, the Hotel Umbra, that looked like the decor hadn’t been changed since 1930. The lobby wallpaper had gone yellow from decades of cigarette smoke, and everything had a fine layer of dust, including the old man behind the front desk. I hoped that the room would be in better shape. Mine was on the fourth floor.
Being an old place, the hotel had a rickety cable elevator, the kind with the double sets of doors: one of those flexing metal gates, and a solid outer pair of doors. I shut the gate and latched it, and pressed the tiny black button for my floor.
Just as the outer elevator doors were about to close, I was startled by the face of a young woman rushing at the gap between them. She was too late; the doors shut, and after a moment the elevator ascended.
I thought nothing of it, until I needed to take the elevator back down for one of my bags. I entered, pushed the button for the lobby, and pressed my tired back to the elevator wall opposite the doors. They had nearly completely shut when again I was surprised by a woman’s face moving towards the gap, staring into the elevator through the gate, too late to place her hand in to stop the doors from closing. This time I sprang forward and held the “Door Open” button, and after a moment the doors lurched and slid open.
I waited a moment. From the opening I could see partly down the hallway: no one in sight. Still holding the button down, I slid open the metal gate and craned my head into the hallway to look down the other direction.
No one. No trace of the girl, no recently shut hotel room door, no footsteps, no jingle of keys.
I released the button, but did not lean back against the wall. I stood directly in front of where the gap in the doors would be, in the center of the elevator. After a pause, the outer doors again began to slide shut, to move towards each other until the space between them was the width of a young girl’s face.
In that quarter-second several fingertips appeared, followed immediately by her face again, rushing from around the corner, staring at me as the doors met. I had been watching the gap where I thought she might be, so I saw her — she was about thirteen years old, and very plain, almost homely, with a pale complexion and neck-length dark brown hair that looked mussed or slightly dirty.
I didn’t have time to glance down at her visible shoulder, to see what she was wearing; from her behavior I wondered if she was a runaway or a homeless person who had gotten into the building. She had had a glassy, blank expression, tinged with a little desperation, some distant desire or need. A look that could easily be accompanied by the words “Please help.”
The next time I passed the front desk, I asked the old man if he’d seen a young girl running through.
“Heard the stories, then,” he said between throat-clearings, rocking gently in his seat. “Young Maddy has been here a long time. Takes a liking to gentlemen guests. Always been shy. Never says a word, not a word. Just curious.”
I told him I hadn’t heard any stories, and that there had been a girl taking the stairs and standing in front of my elevator on every floor.
“That’s our Maddy,” he said. “She likes you then. Sweet on you. She just wants to see, that’s all, just to see. All she ever does. Curious little thing. Just wants to see.”
I stayed at the Hotel Umbra for three nights. It was a four-night business trip; the last night I tried sleeping in my car. It didn’t help.
Let me tell you about Young Maddy. You only catch glimpses of her, of a face with a resigned look of quiet desperation, dominated by a pair of wide, dark eyes. Locked doors, barricades, nothing made a difference; she gets inside. I never saw her longer than half a second. Every time I laid eyes on her she retreated instantly, only to appear again an hour or two later. An hour or two if I was lucky.
Let me tell you about where I saw Young Maddy.
Every time I shut the door to my bathroom, in my hotel room, I saw her. If I watched as I shut it, at the last possible second I’d see the crescent of her face moving fast at the gap. I’d throw the door open to find nothing.
Every time I closed the closet door I saw her. If I watched that gap, she’d suddenly be inside the closet, leaning her head to watch me just as it shut. It’s as if she knew where to go, where to be, so that my eye would meet hers. But there was never an impact, never a moment when she’d make contact with the door or the wall.
The first time I sat at that writing table I saw her. As I closed the large bottom drawer. She rushed at the gap from inside the drawer, her wide eyes pleading for something I could not give. I pulled the drawer from its rails and threw it to the floor.
I did spend that last night in my car, but like I said, it did no good. Tossing and turning on that rental car seat, the back ratcheted as flat as I could get it, I’d have to open my eyes sometimes, and if there was a place for her to dart from my view when I opened them, she did. In the side-view mirror, or peeking over the hood of my car — once upside-down, at the top of the windshield, as if she was on the roof.
I’m back in St. Paul again, and I’ve been back for a year. But Maddy hasn’t stopped. If I keep my eyes open long enough, if I watch a place long enough, I’ll eventually catch sight of movement — near the copier in my office, a pile of boxes in an alley, a column in a quiet parking lot — and my eye will get there just in time to see her eye retreating from view. There’s never anything there when I go to look, so I’ve stopped looking.
That’s how I’ve had to change things since the Hotel Umbra. I’ve stopped looking. I keep my eyes shut when I close doors, when I shut drawers and cabinets, fridges, coolers, the trunk of my car. Not all spaces. Just ones that are big enough.
At least, that used to work. I was getting ready for bed a few nights ago, standing in front of my bathroom mirror, door shut, cabinets shut. Watching myself floss. I opened up wide to get my molars.
I swear I saw fingertips retreat down the back of my throat.