Friday 11 September 2009

THE ROOM NEXT TO ROOM 5 by Eric Beetner

The Room Next To Room 5

Of the four fluorescent tubes that attempted to light the room, three of them were burned out. The only help came from the ring of dingy grey light over the bathroom mirror, as if there was anything worth seeing in it. Rooms like this are made for temporary use so the motel managers can get away with slack maintenance. Most people who checked in to this room before probably stayed only long enough to shoot up or get off, often both. A room like this looks better in dim light anyway.
A man has choices, Levi thought. This is one of mine right here. He tried to think back over all the decisions he had made in life but came up blank, as if this was the first thing he’d ever had to choose. More like it was just the only one that mattered. He rationalized to him self; I guess that’s how it is between living and dying. It’s the only choice really worth making.
Levi sat on the edge of the twin bed staring at nothing. He was a man so ordinary and so average in every way that he spent his entire life denying he was someone else. “Do I know you?” people would ask. “Didn’t we go to high school together?” “Aren’t you Rachel’s brother?” “Didn’t we meet at a party last New Year’s Eve?”
Brown hair, brown eyes, average height, generic haircut and no distinguishing features will do that to you. He often wondered if he shouldn’t get a tattoo of some wild scene or even just his social security number across his wrist in case he was found dead one day and the coroner couldn’t identify him. He’d be piled him a room with all the other John Doe’s who look exactly the same. I bet none of them are in a mess like this one, he thought.
Used to be we had debtor’s prison for people who borrowed beyond their means. Then there’s chapter eleven bankruptcy but that requires that you get the money legally. (Get it before you lose it all, that is.) For Levi there was no paper trail, no receipts. There was just his word, a handshake and the promise of repayment at any cost. He never dreamed that constituted anything but cash at a substantial interest rate. Certainly not murder.
Sitting in the courtroom two months ago watching Cheryl’s trial was painful enough but when bail was set it was all Levi could do to keep himself in his seat and not try to leap over the fake wood railing and throttle the judge to try and squeeze a little reason into him. $50,000 was a lot of damn money, even if Cheryl did stab that girl and even if that girl was the daughter of a city councilman. What the hell was the little princess doing buying crystal meth then, if she’s Daddy’s good little girl? But the judge had spoken and Levi had to sit and watch his girlfriend get escorted out of the courtroom and back down to the basement holding cell to await trial. Cheryl was stoic but then she always was stingy with her emotions. Levi felt tears come to his eyes but he fought hard and they never dropped.
Until Cheryl stabbed that girl with a pocketknife (so small it could hardly do permanent damage) only Levi had been on the receiving end of Cheryl’s short temper. That had involved, over the three years since they bought the doublewide over at the Hiawatha RV and Trailer park, two instances of thrown coffee mugs – one full, one empty. A scar on his right cheek from a nail file and three across his left forearm from the nails it sharpened. One forceful kick to the testicles that caused vomiting, swelling and an elaborate lie at the Emergency Room. One hot hamburger patty lifted right out of the skillet and hurled, with alarming accuracy, by the spatula landing on Levi’s neck causing second degree burns and more lies. The loss of two toenails after Levi’s foot was shut firmly in the shower stall door.
Cheryl’s prior record of assaults on classmates and friends in high school is the stuff of rumor and legend but Levi remained unaware as he had never met anyone in Cheryl’s life. She never spoke of family, never invited friends over except when Levi was out. Levi became her blood and meth became the air she breathed. She could scarcely inhale without it.
As she was led from the courtroom, the sickly orange of her county lockup jumpsuit cast a jaundiced pallor over her face that was framed by limp hair with dark roots. Levi’s eyes moved down to her shackled hands and he could see they had cut her fingernails to the quick and she was weak like Samson because of it.
But that was then and this was now.
He had shaken hands and given his word for the bail money and now it was his responsibility. After he presented the court clerk with the cashier’s check for $50,000 Cheryl didn’t have to stay in the basement cell any longer. She kissed him, hugged him and said thank you and then went out to celebrate with her friends, which Levi knew meant getting high on crystal meth and stumbling home to the trailer after two a.m.
She didn’t come home. That was three weeks ago.
It had been four days since he checked in to the motel. He was told to wait so he did. Room 5. Don’t go out. Meals will be provided. No TV. No noise so you can hear if he shows up or not. No explanation of who “he” was. Here’s your gun. Now wait.
There it was, the tool to his salvation. 9 mm. Is that the size of the bullet? The barrel? He didn’t know. Each time he lifted it he was again struck by the weight.
One squeeze of the trigger and his debt was forgiven. One motion with only two knuckles of one finger and he was free to escape and start over. Only now his new life would be as a killer. To be a killer of men you need very little job experience. One time behind the barrel of a gun and you achieve tenure, even if you never do it again; which Levi had no plans to do.
The bullet offered escape in more than one form. The notion had struck him long before he took up residence in Room 5. Before his first night listening into Room 6 through thin plaster covered by thick paint. The nagging thought returned each time he eased open the door a sliver to check if his white paper bag with his complimentary meal had arrived. Mornings brought a blueberry muffin tightly wrapped in plastic, which infected the taste much more than any ghost of a blueberry. Cheeseburger and soggy fries at lunch. Another cheeseburger for dinner with soggy fries and cole slaw plus a plastic wrapped cookie that claimed to be home made, complete with a picture of a smiling grandma.
His choice of targets remained: the mystery man expected to check in to Room 6 or the man who looks less and less familiar as he stares back from beneath the dull fluorescent ring in the bathroom mirror. Either way, Levi would be done with this. A bullet in his head or a bullet in mine. Only difference is what direction I point the gun.
When it first became apparent Cheryl wasn’t coming back, Levi regretted never learning about anyone else she knew. He had no idea where she might have gone beyond the threshold of the doublewide. He got in his truck once but didn’t even start the engine because he knew the futility of looking for her. He was her blood but she chose the air and left him with a bill for $50,000. Add bail jumper to the list right after coffee-mug-thrower and nail-gouger.
Somehow he knew, though, if he tried to run they would find him. Bail bondsmen have a reputation as a pretty tough lot but the kind of bail bondsmen that aren’t listed in the yellow pages and that don’t try at all to look intimidating, but in not trying end up looking twice as much so, these are the guys to watch out for. They’re also the guys to go looking for when you need $50,000 in a hurry and have nowhere else to turn.
All his dealings with them had been generous enough. When he told them he could not pay back the money there were no broken ribs, no cigarette burns,
no pinky finger taken as payment but when the proposal to get rid of his debt came up, Levi was not so foolish as to say no. One gesture of good will deserves another.
So here he waits. He unplugged the TV and put it in the closet to practice “out of sight, out of mind” but his mind was so otherwise occupied he had no interest in TV anyway. Out of boredom Levi read from the Gideon Bible and was confounded by it. So many names, so many stories. He found himself not reading the words but pulling the pages between his fingers and wondering how they got the paper so impossibly thin.
He began to play games with himself to help him in his decision.
If that last light tube goes dead, I’ll do myself. If I get something other than a cheeseburger, I’ll do him.
His getaway car sat in the lot outside, though he had never seen it. The keys were to arrive with his last meal. That would be the signal that the man in Room 6 was the right man and should immediately be shot. Levi contemplated if they intended that he should eat his meal, then shoot him or simply take his soggy fries with him to his new life in, oh what the heck, Arizona. New Mexico maybe. Or north to Montana. Note to self: get an atlas and find out least populated state. Go there.
Maybe making plans at all was for a sucker. Maybe another sap who can’t pay the bill is in Room 4 waiting for him. Let’s not forget the type of men we’re putting our trust in here.
Maybe they could find Cheryl. They have resources. After all, it’s really her debt, not mine.
Through the wall, he could hear movement. Levi imagined Room 6 as a mirror image of his own and he stalked the floor following the sound. Something heavy hit the bed. The bathroom sink turned on, and then shut off. The TV clicked on (lucky bastard).
Levi looked at, but did not lift, the gun. He thought the man in Room 6 must have done something really bad. Why else did he deserve to die? He thought up many scenarios in which this man must be involved including child pornography, killing his own Mother, drug trafficking to grade-schoolers and the slave trade of underage Filipino women. We’re all probably better off without him walking the streets.
Justifying it to himself didn’t help Levi much because he knew that most likely this was a simple and petty difference of opinion or a misunderstanding. Shit, anyone can make mistakes. Who really deserves to die? Who doesn’t?
More deals. I’ll open the Bible, point to a page and that will tell me what to do. Corinthians. Something about sheep herding. God dammit.
A thin rope of light under the door shone from the parking lot overhead lamps. A small shadow moved in and broke the rope. Levi crossed to the door.
A white paper bag. He snatched it through the narrow opening.
Inside a set of car keys and a tuna sandwich. Levi stared a long moment at the white bread and the tiny chunks of celery. A deal is a deal, even if it’s with himself. Eat the sandwich later, he decided.
Levi stepped over to the gun and was surprised by how heavy it lifted from the dresser. Overhead the fourth and final tube of fluorescent light blinked twice and then went dark.
“Shit,” Levi thought. Choices.
The Room Next To Room 5 began as a short story and morphed into a novel. A novel with a lot of potential. A novel that needs work. I'd love to hear if anyone finds a guy like this in a situation like this a decent enough hook to keep you reading. If you're eager to read something right away, my debut novel co-written with JB Kohl is One Too Many Blows To The Head and it will be available in October. That one has already had all the work and it shows. Megan Abbott loved it. So did Nick Quantrill. What more do you need to know?


  1. yep, there's a lot going on here. I'm a fan, of course, but more would be very nice indeed.

  2. Like Paul said: a lot going on. But, you were able to keep the story contained and fluid; that was the difference maker for me.

  3. I enjoyed the story, but I like where it ends. Has a nice complete feel to it. Still, if there was more, I would certainly turn the page to see.