Nina was right – all of the hallways were the same. All of them. And there were more and more every time she looked. She had stopped counting at a hundred and forty floors when she realized that she wasn’t out of breath. She took five or six steps to catch up with each of Sunday’s strides, and still she didn’t get tired.
Being in the hallways felt different – she couldn’t see the way she could in the room. Her vision was strictly front and center, like being outside or back home. After a night in the room, it felt very strange to not be aware of things behind her and above her and things that might happen soon. She kept looking behind and around, and twice she heard a metallic noise from below her, like something big scraping across the ground. She stepped a little closer to Sunday, who either hadn’t noticed the noise or didn’t care.
“I’ve heard the hallways are dangerous,” she said.
“Did your books tell you that?”
“Yes,” Izzy said.
Sunday shrugged. “I don’t really know why you guys spend so much time figuring this place out, you know,” he said. It’s not that complicated. It’s just – and these hallways aren’t that dangerous, really. This wing is mostly okay. This place isn’t that complicated, though, is what I was saying. I don’t know why you need your books.”
“I’ve seen those books before,” Sunday said. “They all have a lot of pages and the writing is really small and there’s no pictures.” He mimed reading a book until his hands muddled themselves. “You don’t need that much room to talk about this place. You don’t need it.” He shrugged too.
Shrug shrug shrug. Shrug shrug shrug shrug. Always exaggerated, and always what she had done.
“I guess,” Izzy said. “But this place is weird, isn’t it? That seems like a good reason to write about it to me.”
“Nah,” he said. “You’re where you go when you’re dreaming. That’s it. The hotel is where dreams are. You don’t need a travel guide some lady wrote to tell you anything about it.”
Izzy stopped and stared at him.
“Do you know Nina?”
Sunday laughed. “Sure,” he said. “Everybody knows Nina. She wrote your books. I know a guy who met her in here back maybe thirty or so years ago, I think. And I helped her out once when she was a kid. She’s old.” Nod nod nod.
“Yeah,” Izzy said, hurrying to catch up. He hadn’t slowed down when she had stopped. He didn’t even look as though he had noticed. “She doesn’t act like it, though.”
“You know her?”
“I’ve met her. She’s living in Pennsylvania near me. My grandpa knows her.”
“Is your grandpa the dad you miss?”
Her eyes fell.
They rounded a corner into another hallway.
He looked at her curiously.
“Is that why you’re so quiet? Because of your grandpa?” he asked. He sounded sincere. Like he really didn’t know.
“I can’t ever leave,” Izzy said.
Sunday stared blankly.
“Yes,” she said. “That’s why I’m so quiet.”
She rubbed her eyes and walked.
“I’m sorry,” he said after about a minute. “Um, I don’t really – you know we don’t really think the way you – I’m sorry. It never occurred –”
“It’s okay,” Izzy said.
He scratched his head. “I can’t tell if you mean it or not. It’s tricky.”
“I mean it.”
“Oh, okay. I’m sorry. This place isn’t – I’m sorry.”
“I said it’s okay.”
“I know,” Sunday said.
“What were you going to say about this place?”
“Nothing. It wouldn’t have been – I don’t know the word it wouldn’t have been. Nothing.”
She shoved him in the side. It made a “thud” and he didn’t move.
“Come on,” she said. “Go ahead and tell me.”
“It’s just that this place isn’t that bad,” he said. “I didn’t want to say anything because – I know you’re upset and it didn’t seem like the right time. But this place is beautiful, small girl. It’s beautiful. Try not to be so sad. This isn’t a bad – excuse me.”
He was crying. A hand the size of a spade wiped across his face and nose. The bird on his shoulder rocked back and forth with the motion.
“This isn’t a bad place to spend your life. I’m sorry. I don’t mean to – I’m sorry about your grandpa. I don’t have words for it, but I’m very sorry. Please. Please don’t tell it.”
He was sobbing.
Izzy stared at him as he leaned against a wall and buckled at the knees. He sat hunched on the floor, shaking and shaking and crying his eyes out.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I wasn’t supposed to make you sad,” he said. “That’s what it said. That’s what it said. Now it’s going to swallow me up. Please don’t tell it that I messed up, small girl. Please don’t tell.”
“Why are you afraid of Mr. Marshal?” Izzy asked.
His hands were pulling at his hair. He could hardly look at her. He whispered his words like he might be overheard.
“He’s the dark,” Sunday said. “He’s the whole dark, and I can’t – he said he’d swallow me up if I didn’t do what he said. I don’t want to die, small girl. I don’t – Izzy, I don’t want to die.”
Izzy shook her head. “I won’t let him hurt you,” she said.
Through his tears, he breathed in deep. “You won’t tell?” he asked.
She held out her hand to him. “I’ll protect you,” she said. “I won’t tell him anything. It’s okay.”
He rested his hand around hers. It engulfed it. And he just looked at her for a minute, like he couldn’t believe what he had heard.
“Thank you,” Sunday said.
He stood up, and they walked down the hallway hand in hand.
She would protect him.
She meant it, too. She didn’t care what Mr. Marshal had said to him, if he had said anything. It didn’t matter to her. It wasn’t fair to make Sunday cry like that. It’s not fair for people to pick on people. That’s what bullies do.
She blinked as she realized what she was thinking. She had never had a little brother before.
She had thoughts that felt like they were viewed through glass about the way things used to be before everything happened. Her home had been bigger before safe places started to pull farther away. Before she visited Nina, before she saw the tall man in the Leigh’s house, before Chelsea, before she knew about the pregnancy, before Jake. Before her mom. A little more than a year ago she had graduated middle school. She felt just like that. She felt like all the other things didn’t really happen. She couldn’t make them real. So she swallowed the thought as best she could and kept it down.
Chelsea had wanted to keep it. They had only talked about it three times – once on the playground and twice after – and each time Chelsea had called it “he” like she knew for certain. That made it seem too close. To Izzy it wasn’t real, so it wasn’t a he or a she or an anything. Chelsea died before she started to really show. She corrected herself – Chelsea had been killed.
She had wanted to name it Matt. Once Izzy had asked her what she would have done if she had been wrong – if it had been a girl. Chelsea looked straight at her and gave an answer. Afterward she had tried to play it off as a joke, but she had said it. If it was a girl it would have been named Izzy. And nobody really knew what to think of that.
It was hard to keep her thoughts straight here. She jumped around. For some reason thinking about Chelsea had made her think about watching Star Wars with her family, and about the tree house. She settled on a very small memory that surprised her in its tenacity. Her school counselor, asking her incessantly if she was alright. Over and over. She wondered if this train of thought would lead to a revelation of great connectedness and unity. If it did, she wondered if she would notice or if she would find some way to distract herself. She shrugged and thought about other things.
The new things she thought about resembled very much the old things. They were the same. They were all she could think about in the world. Even here, where things didn’t connect to one another. Even here.
She looked up her enormous and scarred companion, who had not let go of her hand. He had stopped walking, and was looking far ahead.
She went to speak.
“Wait,” he whispered. “Look.”
Ahead of them was … something. She could hardly see it – it was flat against the ground, and small, and quite far away. Sunday crept up to it and gently pulled Izzy along. “You’ve read the books,” he said. “So you know about ideas.”
“They live here, right? Anything you think of?”
Nod nod nod. “Whatever anybody thinks of,” Sunday said. “As long as they get picked up and cared for.”
This was familiar. Socrates and Phaedrus and something about writing things down and killing them and the idea man collecting them. Nina didn’t write in metaphors even when she wrote crazy things. It was hard to keep that in mind.
“Mm hmm. And dreams and things people forgot about. Help me bend down,” he said, indicating his leg. They had arrived at the shape on the floor, and Izzy saw what it was. She squared her shoulders and let Sunday lean on her slightly as he lowered himself down down down.
In front of them was a framed picture. Sunday took it reverentially. “Shhh,” he said. “It’s okay. You’re a beautiful thing.”
Izzy studied. “What is it?” she asked.
Sunday shrugged as he stood back up, grunting in pain from his bad leg. He took care not to drop or jostle the little frame. “I don’t know,” he said, “but it needs a home. Come on – you can touch it. It’s okay.”
She let her fingertips run along the back of the picture, and felt her stomach drop away. She and Sunday were standing in the middle of an enormous parking lot, flanked by streetlights in the middle of the night.
“This is somebody’s dream, I think,” Sunday said. “It feels asleep. Sometimes they just need a little help.”
A young man wearing overalls was kneeling down next to a horse in the middle of the parking lot, petting it. The horse was breathing hard, and its eyes darted. It trembled on the ground, jostled itself, and made weak and rasping noises as the man whispered to it. Izzy couldn’t hear what he was saying.
“Is this his dream?” Izzy asked. “Or the horse’s?”
“I don’t know. I’m not supposed to look.”
“Could you make it better?” Izzy asked.
“Sure,” Sunday said. “But it wouldn’t count. All it would do is give me a memory of a healthy horse. The good things don’t get rid of the bad ones – they sit on top of them. Whoever this dream or this memory belongs to would still remember it the way it went in his head. It’s just my job to catalog them and make sure they stay. I can’t go changing them – it wouldn’t count. It wouldn’t be real.”
The man fed the horse a little slice of apple, and continued petting it as it brayed weakly. She reached out for the horse and waited for Sunday to stop her. He didn’t, and she let her hand fall. It felt like a horse would, she supposed.
“I pet a horse when I was little,” Izzy said. “At a birthday party. That’s how I know what a horse feels like. Does that mean I’m petting that one when I pet this one?”
Sunday nodded. Nod nod nod nod nod nod nod.
“It’s turning into your memory,” he said. “You’re putting bits of yourself into it. What you bring to it tells it what it is. That’s why I don’t look.”
“Do you have memories?” Izzy asked.
He shrugged. “I can’t remember,” he said.
He stuck his tongue out and laughed, and Izzy smacked him on the forearm. She was grinning.
She looked back at the horse and started to see more and more similarities to the one she had pet at the birthday party. She turned away from it and left the man to tending his friend. She looked back at Sunday, who was studying the photo in which they were standing.
She looked down at the picture, and her surroundings twisted themselves again, and she stood back where she was in the hallway with Sunday. He was laughing a little.
She took it in, reasoned it out, and asked a question.
“You said you’re not supposed to,” she said. “And you mentioned your job. What did you mean? What’s your job?”
Sunday shook his head. “I just give them a place to stay.”
“Are you the idea man?”
Sunday grinned dimly.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m the idea man. But then, so are you.” He took the picture from her gently and held it in both hands.
“What?” Izzy asked.
He smiled. “We’re all idea men. Every one of us. Now come on, I know a room near here that this one would like.”
“Where do ideas live?”
Sunday waved his hand around him and pointed at random rooms. “They’re everywhere, small girl,” he said.
She reached out and touched the edge of the picture and sort of expected to have her hand pass through it. Sunday put it away in the big pocket of his coat. She thought for a minute.
“Are my memories here?”
“Can I see them?”
He looked at her, alarmed.
“You think that’s a good idea?” he asked. He looked around carefully, like he had when he told her about Mr. Marshal. “I don’t know if that’s a good idea.”
“Is there a rule against it or something?”
“No, no,” Sunday said. “It’s just that – I mean, wouldn’t they make you sad?”
She squeezed his hand until the pressure made her’s go numb. “That’s okay,” she said.
“Oh,” Sunday said. “Okay, then,” he said.
He reached for a nearby doorknob and opened what Izzy had thought was a room like hers. It was another hallway instead. They took it – Sunday opened another door into another hallway, and then another and another and another. Each one was a right turn, and each one was the center door in its row. Izzy realized that after enough rights they should have ended up where they started, and she was not surprised that they didn’t. It was another door. It was marked. None of the other doors had been marked.
It was marked “vacancy”.
“How does it work?” Izzy asked.
“You just go inside. The room does all the rest.”
She opened the door and walked through before he could stop her. He made a noise behind her, but she couldn’t make out what it was. She left him holding the picture frame.
The room was empty – she looked back at the door and found it hanging open and leading to a hallway she had never been. Sunday was gone. And then she felt strange things in her head.
She faded. She gave up any sense of being Izzy Parsons and decided instead to be the room. And so she was the room. Every part of her. She was an expanse and borders and boundaries and was aware of what was outside herself. She took the things outside herself and placed them in the room that was her and watched and watched. The room vanished and all that remained was the intelligence and the expanse and the boundaries, and a dim light. She populated it with whatever she wanted.
There was a deafening noise. Clack clack clack clack. Clack clack clack. Cla –
And they began. Izzy’s memories. She was not a participant or a viewer to them – she was not an audience but a film projector. She saw and felt them as a staging. She was the place in which they played out. She was a signal. She was the room and inside her was her life in moments. She allowed them, and saw them as they passed.
She is the tree house. She listens in the woodwork as Izzy and Chelsea and Charles and Matt plan on hot summer days. She feels the reverberations of pairs of feet climbing the knotted ladder. She is strewn with books and toys. She is a view to the raging fire last summer. She is refuge. She watches as Charles kisses Izzy on the lips, and as Izzy hits him. She is where Izzy and Chelsea and Charles and Matt hid from ghosts in sleeping bags.
She is the field at the base of the tree. She watches Izzy hand her mother nails and boards to build the tree house. Chelsea is there. Charles is there. Matt is not born. She feels the impact as the hammer comes down. She feels the splinter of the wood in the air above her and the crash of a body as Izzy’s mother falls from the tree and lands perfectly on her feet. She watches Izzy’s awed face at the sight of her mother catching a falling piece of wood and climbing back up the tree again. She watches Izzy bend down and pluck a bent nail embedded in the grass.
She is the bedroom. She is the drawer of keepsakes. Inside her is a little photo album, a jar of coins, a journal, class photos, academic awards from primary school, drawings she has made, birthday cards, jewelry left by her grandmother, broken toys, and the bent nail.
She is the playground.
She is the school. She is the car. She is a beach in Virginia at Easter. She is the doctor’s office. She is the playroom in the old house. She is the basement. She is the airport and the tiny plane on the way to Kentucky. She is summer camp. She is her swing set with the sharp edge. She is her grandfather’s hospital room. She is the school bus. She is the backyard. She is the dusty attic full of maps and antiques at the church in her neighborhood. She is Kyle Marshal’s house. She is her dining room – her grandfather prepares food for her and her mother.
She is how she imagines the funeral parlor at her mother’s wake. She is how she imagines the room in which she was born, overlooked by her mother and father.
She is the Leigh’s house, with a door ripped from its hinges. Chelsea is dead inside. Upstairs the curtains are drawn for the night. There is a tall man in a suit and many swirling things.
She is a dream she has forgotten: she is the field. Underneath the tree sit Izzy and her friends. Jake is there with Chelsea. Standing nearby is a man nobody notices, even when they look at him, until he makes himself known. The man is singing. It’s the man from the house. The man from the room, the man from the doorway, the man from the basement. Stagger Lee. In an old dream is the man, and the man is singing. Chelsea stands up and walks out from under the shadow of the tree to stand with the singing man. War, children. It’s just a shot away. One by one, they all join him.
And behind them, at the top of the tree, was their refuge, where they had watched the fire just last summer. And in the corner, just above the window, were three numbers that she had seen probably hundreds of times.
How could she have forgotten?
How did she miss it?
Stay away – warn them. Do something. Wake up.
Wake up. Wake up.
Izzy was gone. She did not wake up. There was no Izzy to wake. She was the field: she is a dream she had forgotten. All she can do is watch.
The man leads them to a cliff’s edge, holds their hands each in turn, and casts them over the side. They hit the water and let their lungs fill, and the dream ends. The room ends. The memories stop.
She wakes up as herself. She is in the hotel, and the room remains the field. She is not anything but Izzy – an occupant again.
Izzy Parsons sat all alone and lost in thought in the sunshine, huddled with her knees pulled to her chest. When she had seen him from the window of the Leigh’s house there was no familiarity. When she had learned his name there was no recognition. And here he was in a dream from a long time ago, living in a dead part of her mind for years and years without anybody telling her.
She whimpered softly under the tree. Her arms and shoulders had gone numb from holding herself up. There was something hiding in her, from when she was very small. There was something hiding inside her and all of her friends. It wasn’t only Jake. They had all seen him, and they had forgotten.
What else couldn’t she remember?
The dull violation. As soon as she was made aware it was old and faded. There was no one to lash out at and no one to blame. So she sat and thought until she felt like she would vomit. Stagger Lee was there in her childhood. Her’s and Chelsea’s and Charles’s and Matt’s and Jake’s.
So she sat, because that was all there was to do.
The door opened behind her very quietly and shut again. A massive, shaggy man covered in scars filled the frame and crossed it. He entered the field and, in a few steps, stood over Izzy. He sat down next to her, and she leaned her head on his shoulder, just below the feathers of the black bird. Tears ran down, but only a few. Together they looked up at the tree in the center of the room and watched as buckets of rain poured from its branches.