Chapter 12: The Narrow Room
“I know. I’m supposed to get up and greet you,” Jani sighed. “Consider yourself greeted.” Jani shifted in the bed and turned her back to Sonia.
This is going to be harder than I expected, Sonia thought. She moved slowly, first around the single bed by the door until she stood at the end of the second bed where Jani was lying. “Jani,” she said again.
“I know my own name,” came the muffled voice. This simple sentence hit Sonia like a fist. I am not welcome, she told herself, still standing at the end of the bed, her car keys, gloves, and purse ridiculously clutched in her hands. I wish I’d brought something. But what, it was hard to imagine. Something to put between my hands for courage, she decided, something warm I can sip.
“I’m going to get a cup of coffee from the machine,” she said. “Be back in a sec.”
As she stood outside at the coffee machine, the wind and snow whipped behind her like ravening beasts. She stared at the brown liquid entering the paper cup. I have to have something to tell her, Sonia thought. Something that will distract her and take her mind off herself.
Carrying the cup down the snowy walk, Sonia passed several doors to other rooms, none of which showed signs of being occupied. She pushed back into Jani’s dark cave. As she set her coffee on a side table, Sonia said, “We have a survivor off an ore boat at Simon’s.” Jani grunted. “Hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to turn on this lamp.” Another grunt.
Sonia clicked the knob and created a small circle of weak light. She sat on the bed beside the lamp and struggled out of her heavy down coat. Pulling off her gloves, she ran her hands through her hair. It was warm in the motel room, at least there was that. She sat on the bed as she sipped the coffee.
“Cam put you up to this,” came Jani’s muffled voice. “And you can just go and jump in the lake.” Feeling the jolt of this, as well as its childish resistance, Sonia took another sip of coffee. At least there was sugar in it. She’d punched the sugar button, and it had actually been added. She sighed and set the cup down.
“It’s a long story,” she said to the white rectangle of the closed door, though what long story she planned to unroll was not immediately clear.
“Remember how you and I sat in the moonlight last summer, and I went one way and you the other?” She didn’t wait for Jani to answer. “I was on the way to call Eve. The phone booth looked eerie, lit-up and empty like a space craft just landed.”
Sonia took another sip of coffee, then another. Nothing, not even a stir from Jani. “The phone seemed to ring for a long time, but maybe it was just me, shivering a little from standing there exposed in the dark.” She had a brief fear that Jani would loom behind her with a knife.
“When Nancy, Eve’s friend, answered, her voice had a squeak to it.”
Behind her, Jani’s said, “Yeh, a squeak of derision.” Sonia felt the harshness of this but kept right on, her voice as level as she could make it. She didn’t pause as she said in a squeaky Nancy voice, hamming it up a bit, as if Jani had given her stage directions,
“Oh, Mrs. Cayce, we’ve been soooo worried about how to reach you. Eve had an accident a few hours ago. She was driving home and an old lady ran a stop sign. Eve’s car is tooootally smashed, but she’s A-ok.”
“Why are you telling me this?” came Jani’s stinging voice. “A-ok? Like some kind of kid drama?” Nancy hadn’t said A-ok. Sonia had made it up. Jani’s voice sounded louder. Was she sitting up?
Sonia remembered twisting her fingers so tight in the phone cord that they hurt. For a few minutes, that summer evening, she had told herself she should go home and take care of Eve.
“At the hospital when I called, a male nurse answered, ‘Nurse Wicks.’ I almost lost it.” Outside, a Monson truck thundered past. Through the open blinds of the motel window, Sonia glimpsed the huge word “MONSON,” on the truck’s side as its wheels sloshed snow and grit against the door. She went right on: “The minute Eve answered in her hospital room, I tried to control the concern in my voice. She hates to hear me worry.”
“And I hate it when you waste my time with a stupid story.”
For the first time, Sonia turned around. Jani was sitting up in bed. Her eyes looked like hollows in her gaunt face, her hair tangled and hanging down in bunches. “How long have you been here?” Sonia asked. “Did you do ok with the Jellicksons?”
“Bunch of loonies, always laughing and the kids cutting up. I was very glad they got called away.”
Getting up, Sonia approached the rumpled bed. “Jani,” she whispered, “you could use a shower. Why don’t you take one? I’m here to help.”
The hollow eyes stared at her. “Where am I going that I need to be clean?”
At least she didn’t hit me, Sonia thought. “Come on,” she reached out and tried to put her arms around Jani.
“Stay away from me,” Jani hissed. “I didn’t call you, and you can go to hell.”
“Maybe I will,” Sonia tried to smile. “Come on, into the bathroom. I’ll get the water going in the shower. You can step right into it.”
Jani gave a sardonic smile. “I’ll show you my cuts. There’re so beautiful, I’m totally in love with them.” She put her face right up to Sonia’s. Her breath was rank. “Smells great, doesn’t it? I haven’t brushed my teeth since I got stashed here. Got too busy wielding the knife.”
My god, thought Sonia, how in the world did she get a knife? Stretching out her hands again, Sonia put them awkwardly around Jani’s thin waist and tried to tug her off the bed.
Batting the hands away, Jani threw back the covers. “Get away from me. I’ll take a shower. Just don’t touch me.”
Getting to her feet, Sonia stepped into the bathroom and turned on the hot water. When Jani didn’t come, she returned to the dark room. Jani was standing in her thin nightgown at the open door of the motel room.
“Don’t go out there!” Sonia cried, stumbling around the beds. She reached the door and forced Jani back inside.
“Don’t you think it’d be fun chasing me down Highway 61?”
“Come on,” Sonia used all her force to maneuver the tense body away from the swirling snow. What in the world had happened to her at the Jellicksons? Jani had seemed relatively sane when they’d sat together in Cabin 8. Shivering and shutting the door, Sonia pushed Jani forward, marching her toward the shower. Jani kept balking, making Sonia push harder. By the time they reached the brightly lit bathroom, Sonia saw that Jani’s cheeks were wet with tears.
“Come on,” she said gently without letting go of Jani, “get into the shower. Don’t even take off your nightgown.” She opened the shower door, and tried to maneuver Jani inside. The lank hair smelled of sweat and smoke.
“Go on in,” Sonia said, bending down to lift one of Jani’s feet, then the other into the warm, falling water and settle her under the shower head, with the water streaming over her. “I’m staying right outside. Go on, take off your nightgown,” and Sonia closed the wavery glass door. She could see Jani’s figure, but not the details.
Sonia took big gulps of moist warm air. “Oh help, help,” kept running through her head.
“I want you to come in,” Jani finally said in a little-girl voice. “Come on, come on.” She peeked out the shower door. “I’m going to fall.”
Sonia began stripping off her clothes, pulling off her double socks, her long underwear. In a moment, she opened the door, and felt the warm, soothing rush of water covering her body—down her hair and face, down shoulders, nipples, stomach, thighs, down her legs to her feet.
Jani was leaning against the ceramic tiles, her nightgown clinging to her, her hair hanging wet around her face which was wrenched with pain. “Please Sonia, hold me. I’m going to fall.”
Gathering the thin body against her, Sonia slowly pulled the nightgown down over the girl’s shoulders, taking out one arm, then the other, letting the gown fall to the bottom of the shower and pool at their feet.
She found a soap dispenser against the wall, and filling one hand with squirts of soap, began smoothing the slippery soap up and down Jani’s back, around her neck, down her buttocks, under her arms, down the thin chest with its nubs of breasts, and along the sharp elbows to her hands. Rinsing, she smoothed the body again, using clear water, which, mercifully, fell almost too hot.
Jani was sobbing, “It should have been me…my fault…I don’t even know her name…” Sonia didn’t pay much attention, more concerned with keeping the body upright and soap out of Jani’s eyes.
“Let’s wash your hair,” Sonia said. “Put your hands over your eyes.” Sonia’s own sight was somewhat obscured by water flowing down her face. “Come on,” she bent to dispense more soap, holding up Jani at the same time. “Let’s start with this side,” and turning Jani so that her back was to the shower, Sonia suddenly saw long red slashes across Jani’s buttocks, crusted with blood and still livid from the damage to the skin. She forced herself to keep quiet. At least the girl had chosen the least painful and obvious place.