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In a bathroom on the seventh floor, Vera was holding herself under the water and trying to count to one hundred. Her knuckles were white with effort and pressed over the sides of the bath. The bathroom was tiled in polished bone enamel. The dripping of the tap broke the humming silence under the water’s surface as droplets plipped in time with the seconds. Beneath the water, she was mouthing seventy-one, seventy-two, seventy-three, seventy-four.

            A gulp bubbled from Vera’s mouth and she crashed through the surface. Her desperate

gasp for air echoed off the tiles, as loud as off cathedral walls. Water sloshed over the sides of the

tub. She hunched in the bath water for fourteen droplets. Arms crossed over her chest, she slowly

drew her fingernails down from shoulders to elbow, leaving red tracks on flushed skin. It wasn’t

going to work. Seventy-four was her record, and she had long lost track of how many minutes she had been trying. Water slewed onto the slippery tile floor as she stood and wrapped herself in the linen bathrobe hung from a door hook. She slid into the flimsy slippers, too big for her feet, and wrung out her hair, usually brown but now slick black with moisture. There were no mirrors here. She imagined she looked lifeless. She reached for the bathroom door.

            The en suite bedroom was plain and comfortable without being comforting. It contained a

queen-size bed with starched red sheets, neatly made. The ripped sheets from yesterday - or the

day before - had been replaced. She had watched the silent cleaner change them earlier. The

middle-aged woman, with a short haircut like Vera’s mum, refused to answer any questions. A

small desk against the opposite wall, a simple wooden chair, a blank television screen fixed

above. The brown carpet and off-white walls were engineered to camouflage any grime from the

guests but did not hide the yellowing corners of the ceiling or the frayed carpet curling at the

edges of the skirting board. A no-smoking sign had been hammered up, crooked, above the bed.

A water-crinkled guest book and a blunt pencil lay next to an old-style telephone on the bedside

table, which was dead. The air smelled of cloying lemon-scented cleaning products over an

unpleasant staleness. Tall windows took up an entire side of the room, which looked out onto

another brown-grey wall of the same building. There was no way to open them, and no balcony.

The glass was shatterproof. Vera’s smudged handprints on the glass gleamed in the pearly light

from outside which never seemed to change. She had tried everything in this room.

            She turned the numbered key in the lock and pressed her shoulder against the heavy 

wooden door. There did not seem to be any lights or windows overhead in the hallway, but the

passage was illuminated with a synthetic glow. To her right were thirteen wooden doors and the

stairwell down to the lobby and reception. To her left, doors upon doors stretched along the

hallway which disappeared around a corner. The lift was heard whirring somewhere in the body

of the building like a metallic organ. The cleaner’s trolley clanked steadily a few floors below.

            Vera froze. A foreign sound like faint hammering was coming from down the corridor.

She hesitated, then started to move down the passageway of numbered doors. She felt panic

washing against the inside of her skull like tepid water, threatening to overflow, as she blindly

followed the numbers. Some way down the corridor there was sliver of darkness between a door

and the wall. The regular hammering noise had morphed into a hollow knocking. Her brain felt

like wet cake, her vision shivering at the edges. Someone else was here. She pressed a hand

against the door.

            The same room, the same layout, just reversed; the bed was not on the left wall but on the

right. The windows still made up the opposite wall. The room was thick with the smell of coffee

grounds and tobacco, and there was a thin haze in the air that made her eyes water. Lounging on

the carpet, back against the window, legs sprawled, reclined a man. He seemed unbothered by her

appearance in his room and was methodically bouncing the back of his head against the glass. His cherubic head of messy curls looked at odds with his days-old stubble, and he was dressed in a woven blanket hoodie and shorts, like the travellers Vera had seen around Europe in the summer before university. He reminded her of a very tall scarecrow. Perhaps in his early thirties. Vera’s heartrate peaked. She was grateful to finally see another person, yet afraid to be alone with him. He stopped thudding his scalp on the glass and slowly looked in her direction.

            So, how long have you been here? He addressed the air behind her. His voice was

gravelly and tinged with an Eastern-European accent, probably Russian. His eyes rolled to finally

fix Vera with a half-lidded gaze.

            She hesitated. I can’t remember. You?

            He barked a laugh. Not long.

            Vera exhaled. She strode over to his reclined form and held out a hand. Vera.

            He smiled widely, pensively, returning the hand with one which was streaked with dirt

and dotted with round, shiny burns. Pretty name. Suits you. Rafael. Raf.

            She crossed her arms. Have you worked it out yet?

            Worked what out? He grinned again, mock-innocent, not leering but not friendly. He

reached a grimy hand into his hoodie pocket, brought out a crumpled cigarette and flicked a

lighter into flame. Yes, I did. Didn’t take me too long. It’s my last one, hope you don’t mind.

            Vera looked pointedly at the no-smoking sign above the bed. It was broken into seven

shards from a central point like sunrays; someone had thrown a heavy object, or a fist, at the

plastic. She glanced back down at Raf’s hands: not dirt, but brown scabbed streaks of congealed

blood. Her eyes flickered to the side of the bed: the plastic phone hung off the useless rotary on

its spiral cord, a dent distorting the receiver. One for good measure.

            She sat down a safe distance from him on the floor, leant back. I need you to do me a

favour.

            Nothing else to do. Her vision blurred with Raf’s grey tendrils of regurgitated smoke. He

puffed luxuriantly on the cigarette, saturating the room. Vera could feel a film of tobacco coating

her tongue, her skin. She imagined her skin greying, rotting like a fruit peel.

            It has to be the bath. You’ve probably worked that out already but there’s no other

choice, unless you do it with the phone cord. She snorted. Which seems a little brutal.

            What about the sheets?

            They rip. She rolled her eyes. Too thin.

            Of course.

            They sat in silence for a while. Vera heard a familiar dripping from the en suite.

            Your tap leaks too.

            Raf stared at the profile of her face. He broke into a humourless half-smirk. What

happened to you then?

            Vera stared unseeingly ahead. What had happened? She remembered a white ceiling and

blue curtains and her mum crying through clumped eyelashes. Her dad was stood further back,

greying, pale, his jaw tight. The moment shimmered at the edge of her consciousness, taunting.

The backs of her eyes felt hot. She wondered what the service would be like at church. The empty words; she was ‘loved by all,’ a ‘ray of sunshine.’ Phrases that could not possibly encompass something as sprawling as a life. She thought of all the places she had wanted to go. People were always telling her to make the most of life, but no one ever told you where, or when, or with who, to begin.

            Raf was still thoughtfully dragging smoke down into his lungs, oblivious. You know, if

you cut the head off a chicken it runs around for a few seconds after. Like its body doesn’t catch

up with the fact that its head is gone for whole seconds. Isn’t that mental? He grinned crookedly.

I’ve seen it.

            You’ve cut the head off a chicken?

            We used to keep them in the garden. When I was younger.

            They sat for a moment in respectful silence, the ghosts of headless chickens running

around them.

            A thought materialised for Vera. Do you think this is where they are for a few seconds,

right before they’re gone?

            Raf laughed a yes. I bet their whole stupid chicken lives flash before their eyes in the

chicken limbo and then their bodies catch up with their heads and suddenly, that’s it. Gone. He

snapped his fingers. Vera cringed. She saw Raf with an axe hacking the scrawny pockmarked

neck of a chicken, heard the crunch of sinew and delicate bone.

            He had finished his cigarette with a final sucking draw and stubbed it out on the carpet,

among the other crusty burns in a half circle around him. I could tell you why I’m here, if you

want. As you’ll be leaving. Vera nodded wordlessly, her hair still dripping down her shoulders.

Raf hacked a hollow cough and swallowed, suddenly reserved.

            My girlfriend told me I should go to someone. She was right, but I didn’t want to get help.

Too ashamed. Instead, I pretended I was in pain and got prescription opioids, Xanax, Ambien,

anything. When I stopped, real pain would start. They made me feel lighter, euphoric, like who I

was didn’t matter. I would do stupid things on them. Like push her around. Because what I was

doing didn’t even feel real. And then it went too far and next thing she’d hit her head off the wall.

And then I didn’t know what to do so I put her to bed, took a handful of something. I fell asleep,

and now I’m here.

            Vera’s stomach lurched. He turned his head to her, sedated jade-coloured eyes daring her

to recoil. She stared back, dazed, inches between their shoulders pressed against the window and

its pearlescent light. She felt the words come up her throat like acid reflux.

            You deserve it then.

            I know.

            She paused. I wish I could remember what happened to me.

            If you can’t, it’s probably because you don’t need to.

            Maybe you’re right.

            She stood up in her bath robe and padded to the en suite, leaving Raf on the floor. She

twisted the taps and watched the water run into the tub like liquid glass. Perched on the rim, her

heart pounded with the echoing sound of thundering water. She raised her voice to Raf, who was

still catatonic in the same position.

            Maybe doing this could be good for you, she called, attempting to comfort him. If I get

back. Like, divine redemption or something.

            He snorted. You think that exists?

Sure. She said, returning. She looked down at him. You’ve always got to have faith.

What’s the point otherwise? You think this is it?

            He looked up at her, all dark irises. She noticed his bottom eyelashes were stuck together.

His voice was small now. I’ll have to wait for someone else. Who knows how long that will be?

            She smiled, attempting reassurance. You’ll be okay. It gives you time to think. I’ve been

here for what feels like forever.

           Vera grabbed his hand and hauled him up. He was surprisingly light. She told him what

to do. She climbed into the bath in the clean white robe, leaving the slippers absurdly waiting on

the bathroom floor, and sunk under with a gurgling exhale. Raf’s hands gripped her, one on each

of her upper arms. She was warm, and fragile, and floating. The dripping of the tap from under

the water sounded like the sharper echo of a heartbeat. From the bathroom on the seventh floor in

the forty-ninth room from the stairwell, Vera counted doors and stories as she felt darkness close

over herself like the surface of water, and then she couldn’t feel his hands anymore.

Passing Through

Natalie Beecroft