Motel room. Right. Long way out of town. Everything was a long way out of town around here. A single street lamp sent wedges of sodium light through the leaves of the palm trees outside. It shone through the rain streaming down the windowpane and made the motel room look as if it were crawling.
Sweat prickled her palms and forehead. The place was stifling in spite of the winter season. The knocking escalated to pounding so insistent that the chain on the door rattled. Panic rippled the muscles in her stomach and throat, constricting her breath. She had considered the possibility of her ex finding her here but inside her head the conflict was relatively safe. If her imagination veered toward panic—if it boxed her in a stifling room with one exit-- she closed the door on the possibility.
Elisa looked around the murky motel room for a potential weapon. She was afraid to turn the lights on and signal her ex that someone was in the room. There wasn’t much to see anyway. She had walked out holding her own elbows and had not gone back for her things. The motel furnishings were no help. There were two lightweight lamps, a pad of stationary, plastic pens and a tube-screen television bolted to the desk. She put her hands in her pockets and came up with her penknife. The tiny blade looked pathetic in her hand.
“Elisa,” came a voice like the yowl of a wet cat. “Open the door, I’m getting soaked.”
Elisa’s panicky tunnel-vision expanded. The voice belonged to Andrew, her younger brother. He was the one who had nicknamed her then-boyfriend Mungo Gorbang. Still: “Drew? Is that you?”
Hey heifer, said the memory-echo of Mungo Gorbang’s voice. If it were me, do you think I’d say so?
“It’s me!” Drew reached an aggrieved octave that her ex could not imitate if he tried. Drew blew a long wisp of wet hair out of his eyes as he stepped into the motel room. Plastic bags beaded with water rustled beside his legs.
“I found a yard sale,” he announced. “It was getting dark and they were about to go inside so they let me take as much stuff as I could fit in a bag.”
“Um. You got food, right?” Elisa asked.
“Of course. I had to go kind of a long way because everything except Beijing Palace Grand is closed for the holiday break but on the way there I found a yard sale.” Drew gave her a sweet, stoned smile and lifted his plastic bags for her to see. They bore the logo of a video rental chain that had gone out of business earlier that decade and had the crumpled, faded look that came with many re-uses.
Leave him, the world says. Damn, girl, just walk out. What are you, stupid? Elisa reflected that they never talk about the practical details, like walking out when none of the motels in town have vacancies because of the upcoming holiday. They don’t talk about feeling of discontinuity when your future goes from predictable to unknown. They don’t talk about dropping out of your circle of friends so word won’t get back to Mungo Gorbang. No one talks about what that does to your perspective on the Christmas movies showing constantly on the only three channels available to you. Comparing the festivities on the screen to her dismal surroundings felt like stepping onto what looked like meadow grass and splashing down into marsh-water that was warm at the surface but cold near the pulpy bottom.
No, spending the holiday eating Chinese food with a single family member did not feel like freedom. It felt like falling away from everything good. She sat down hard on the edge of the bed. Elisa realized that thanks to Mungo’s manipulation, her younger brother was the only friend who was truly her own.
Drew shook his wet hair, interrupting her ruminations. It had been a long time since his last haircut and an abundance of water flew around the motel room. Elisa threw her hands up from surprise as the spattering of small cool drops pulled her from her gloomy projections into the present moment. Even so, “Use a towel like a normal person, Drew.”
“My hands are full.” He plunked himself on the edge of the bed. The plastic bags whispered as they landed beside him. Rainwater had doused the orange of his hair. The shoulders of his hooded sweatshirt were several shades darker than the rest. Elisa felt guilty for leaving him outside for so long but knew that he no longer cared. He had one wet shoe tucked up under him and was taking items out of the bags one by one.
White fingers of lightning made the streetlight outside look dim. The stark light made the crawling yellow rain shadows seem even more unsettling when they returned. Thunder rolled so close overhead that the venetian blinds clicked together. Elisa pushed herself to her feet and opened the window as much to get rid of the watery shadows as to get fresh air. The smell of rain and marsh grass gusted into the room.
Drew handed her several Chinese food cartons, then took out sections of a small, crumpled Christmas tree the length of his arm and fitted them together, carefully straightening the branches and fluffing the plastic needles. He then removed a ball of red yarn and a battered doll. Drew held up the doll. Its crimped yellow hair had matted into a single clump. “Meet Libbie.”
Elisa paused with a carton of rice in her hand, eyebrows raised.
Drew put Libbie down again. His long, pale fingers undressed the doll. The sweater and jumper were all that was holding Libbie together. She fell apart on the impersonal motel bedsheet. He lined up her grubby arms, legs, torso and pelvis, then grabbed a ball of yarn.
“Got something to cut this with? Pieces, this long.” He held his fingers apart.
Elisa’s penknife was a pathetic defense but perfectly adequate to cut worsted yarn. She handed him pieces of yarn between bites of Chinese food. Drew wound the yarn around the doll parts: wrists, ankles and waist. Elisa voiced her opinion that this was not a good way to put the doll back together, not even if Drew was planning on making a strange puppet.
“She’s not going back together and she’s not a puppet.” Drew used a loop of red yarn to hang one of Libbie’s arms on the Christmas tree. Elisa joined him on the bed. Together they arranged Libbie limb by limb.
“It isn’t done,” said Drew. His eyes were glassy, the way they looked when he was unwinding.
Elisa surprised herself by picking up Libbie’s hollow rubber head and working it over the topmost branch of the tree. Libbie regarded her with a jaunty smile and cocked head. The doll would keep smiling that way no matter where she was. Elisa picked up the ball of red yarn and wound it around the tree. Her arm quickly tired of the repetitive motion and Elisa found that she was sick of neat, orderly loops anyway. Why try to make red yarn look like tinsel or a string of lights? Instead she made tight loops, loose loops, tangled loops that bound the tree’s limbs to one another. She did not stop until the ball of yarn was reduced to the size of a walnut, then let gravity unwind it.
For a few minutes Elisa and Drew ate in silence. Thunder growled far away over the marsh. Plastic feminine extremities twirled in the breeze from the window. The wire limbs of the tree were too stiff to nod in the breeze but the loops of red yarn fluttered around them.
Perhaps it was the effect of having food on her stomach for the first time that day, but Elisa was satisfied. Part of her thought their decoration made the fake fir tree look like something alien. Part of her thought it looked right. Not festive, exactly, but right. After all, this was another world and she found a kind of freedom in admitting it as opposed to comparing it with normalcy, or worse yet, danger that she’d only considered normal because it was familiar.
Elisa cracked a can of red soda and raised it. “To a different existence.”
“Yeah,” Drew lifted a wonton. “Cherry mistmas and a whiff of Christmas biscuits.”