You’re late. That’s what he says when she sits down at the crowded hotel bar. She doesn’t recognize him, but his smile, well. All women recognize that smile. She smiles back, a curve plucked from a well-worn catalogue of Please Leave Me Alone Please Don’t Ruin My Night Please Stop Please
You’re late, he says again, leaning closer. But don’t worry, your ice hasn’t melted yet.
He slides a sweating glass of something red as a red red rose in front of her. The drink leaves a slime trail in its path that makes her think of slugs and snakes, though she knows—lord, her sister never let her forget—snakes aren’t slimy, they’re just smooth. Smooth like feathers, smooth like lace, smooth like the pillow pressed down on your
Shit. She hasn’t turned away fast enough, hasn’t demurred with Sorry not interested or waved across to a stranger Honey, there you are, so now he’s smiling wider at her, showing teeth. He’s got something black caught between two of them.
She can already smell his offered cocktail, candied and cloying, clogging the air like the stink of Bluebeard’s lilies. Bluebeard would’ve had a time, a time, a time at a hotel this fine. So many heavy wooden doors with so many old-fashioned skeleton keys. A misting of soft, shushed maids to clean up the messes.
He nudges the drink closer. It isn’t poison, Alice, don’t worry. Just something to make you feel small, so small. I could fit you in my pocket, my sweet little doll.
Sometimes she wonders about things that make no sense, like maybe she really did have a date with this guy but contracted amnesia, and can people even “contract” amnesia, is that the right word? A headache buds just between her eyes.
Thank you, she says, hating herself because THANK YOU, really? Thank you, she says again, but I don’t drink.
Great. Smooth. Now he can lean in even closer, his breath on her cheek, and say, But you came to a bar?
She lies, I’m waiting for someone.
And you’re sure it isn’t me? He smells worse than the drink, sliding the glass in closer, himself, the glass, himself, until they both threaten to fall into her lap.
She should stand up and leave, and she almost does, she almost does, except she sees then what she missed upstairs in her room.
That crust around her fingernails, down deep in the cuticles, coiled and red and how did I miss this? She scrubbed everything so carefully.
She’s always thought fingernails looked like scales, a wink from some distant reptilian ancestor no one dares acknowledge. She curls them into her palms as calmly as she can. Snakes are vital, her sister told her. They keep rodents from overrunning the world.
I’m sorry, she says for the second time tonight, I’d really rather be alone.
But here he is leaning in closer with his smile and his drink and that thing between his teeth, and she wonders, she really does, how much more she can swallow.