It might have been an hour, or three, or anything in-between. When I eventually return to work, after everything, my co-workers will chortle politely at this part of the story. “YOU stopped hunting time?”, Harry will say incredulously. “YOU, Stopwatch Kendra? The woman who once negotiated a free bagel sandwich because her lunch order was delayed by two minutes?” I’ll ignore him–a sport at which I’ve become incredibly adept.
But as much as I’d rather not acknowledge it, he’ll be correct. I’m a mediocre tourist at best, and the idea of spending longer than 30 seconds staring at a cityscape–in the evening, through a WINDOW, for God’s sake–urges my adult acne to surface. And yet, Taipei’s surprised me at every turn, just like Mark claimed. We’ve shuttled the kids from one showplace to another and I’ve honestly enjoyed myself, but even for a native Seattleite, my noise tolerance is straining. The constant din is more than my ears can stomach. The desk clerk told us about the observation windows when we originally checked in, and Mark suggested that I hobbit around that space for a while until I could decompress.
“Thanks for the advice,” I say softly to a blinking light several miles away. It hasn’t spoken, of course, but its rhythm reassures me. I groan as I push myself up from the reasonably-comfortable leather chair, but the sound is mostly gratitude. I’m only 38, I exercise enough to not feel guilty when I lie and claim I do it regularly, and I avoid gluten despite never remembering why everyone thinks I should. Still, Mark and I are raising two children, and we’ve frittered far too many precious hours away on the couch, listlessly sifting through work emails like lackadaisical anteaters. Twelve minutes ago, we were tossing baby names to each other, and now I’m greeting aches and tender joints decades before I scheduled them. But I’m on vacation, the St. John’s Wort I swallowed this afternoon is oozing calm through my system, and shuffling out of complete relaxation without embarrassing myself too much is a victory, albeit a miniature one. I’ll gladly accept.
On the trek back to my room, I pass Yu-Tung Huang, our floor’s Housekeeping Manager. We’ve been sleeping in his jurisdiction for several days. My company provides generous compensation, and it’s been half a lifetime since I’ve had to choose between heat and food–but even now, contacting the hotel’s official concierge for anything seems too hoity-toity for me. Instead, I’ve called Yu-Tung directly with minor requests. An abundance of them, perhaps. “Mrs. Burgess,” he beams, with the distinct soothing, helpful tone people develop only through prolonged exposure to difficult customers. “I hope you’ve been having a great day. Is there anything you or your family will require this evening?”
“Nothing that comes to mind at the moment, but thank you,” I say. “I appreciate all the attention you and your staff have paid us.”
“Of course. I am available until midnight. Should you need assistance past that hour, you may call the front desk and ask to speak with the Housekeeping Manager on duty. En-Chi is this floor’s overnight supervisor, and he will be glad to help make your stay even more pleasant.”
“I believe I met him earlier this week.” En-Chi, a stocky, incessantly-grinning Taiwanese giant in his mid-20s, had left me with a lingering doubt as to whether he was governed by determined optimism or a mild case of cheerful misanthropy.
Yu-Tung nods, continuing along his route. My key swipes through the card reader, its astoundingly complex algorithm unlocking the sequences with blistering speed. The reader clicks its approval, its single, unwavering eye shifting from red to green.
My husband Mark has beached himself horizontally on the bed, his spindly legs halfheartedly dangling over the side. It’s been his default reading position since my second pregnancy and it looks anything but comfortable, but I’ve stopped needling him when that became boring. One of the less-advertised joys of swearing vows is that there’s a perpetual supply of fresh needling topics always within reach.
I glance at the title; he’s reading Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Again. “You know the bookstore doesn’t track whether or not you read the books, right?”, I tease, squeezing his shoulder. “The nightstand. The kitchen table. Our bathroom. Our house is being slowly replaced with your To-Read mountain range, but instead of packing a novel you might actually enjoy , you keep returning to one you don’t even like.” I sigh with mock frustration. “You’re an odd kettle of fish, Mark Burgess.”
“Probably,” the bisected lump on my bed mumbles as it retakes human form. Mark’s voice always sounds like it’s wearing a magnificent beard. “I did bring five other books. It’s just…everyone with tastes that I respect keeps recommending Norrell, so I’ve wondered lately if I’m missing something. Like, maybe the key is starting on a Tuesday. Maybe I need to be wearing my Snagglepuss socks.” He waggles his eyebrows, which he knows always makes me snort-giggle. “Anyway, four times now. I think this investigation is concluded. Are you sure ‘an odd kettle of fish’ is the saying? I thought it was ‘a fine kettle.’ “
“Your imaginary fish kettle can self-identify however you’d like, hon.”
He totters to his feet and kisses me, and even though the excursion is a casual one–just a handful of seconds from liftoff to landing–my breath catches for a moment, as ever. “A good night so far? You seem very relaxed.”
“Mmmmph,” I murmur happily, slowly extracting myself from his chest. “Thanks for the idea.”
“You’re so welcome. Honestly, I’d half-expected you to stare at the view for five minutes and then come back here for a nap.”
“So did I. It’s a remarkably nice window.” We share a slight smile and for a moment, I think he’ll voice the questions I can hear whirring in his mind–but he doesn’t, and if I’m being truthful with myself, I’m relieved. Marriage requires 47 different skill sets, and this particular part of the job isn’t one of my strengths.
“Girls are pretty quiet,” I say as I open the refrigerator. Its frosty breath laps at my bare skin in waves–slow, repetitive, like a puppy in need of comfort.
“Yeah. They’re tuckered out. I told Lex we’d watch A Wrinkle In Time before bed, but she’s been zonked out since dinner. She’s using her iPad as a mattress again.”
“Of course.” A heavier sigh than necessary. I twist the cap of a bottle of water and drink deeply. Once, Alexis became so convinced of the household’s need for a dog that she created a PowerPoint presentation, complete with a Q&A session. She was seven. And yet, we’ve schlepped that iPad all over town for repairs because she somehow never remembers she’s not supposed to sleep on top of it.
“Writing. Longhand, which surprised me. She brought the unicorn notebook.”
“Ugh. I thought she’d forgotten about that.” For Gabe’s birthday a few months ago, my sister gifted her a hardcover notebook featuring a delighted cartoon unicorn surrounded by vibrant rainbow hues and the words I WILL CUT YOU. Gabe, probably sensing from my expression that it wasn’t age-appropriate, had loved it for about a week and then immediately immersed herself in something else. In the world my kids navigated, writing by hand was reserved almost exclusively for filling out paper checks at the grocery store. “Did you guys eat dessert?”, I ask Mark, gesturing towards the fridge. “We’ve got about half of that cake from yesterday.”
“You want to wake the kids up?”
His tone says that if we rouse them for a cake party now, settling them back to sleep later might prove difficult. Weigh the options, analyze, conclude. My brain tears across the finish line. “I do. It’s only eight o’clock. They’ve been so well-behaved this entire trip, and they’re at that age where staying up late still feels like committing the perfect crime, even if the wardens sanctioned it. Also, Mark, my love: note the cake.”
“I’m noting it.”
I crack Lex’s door and peek inside, the sliver of light from the hallway cutting sharp angles on her wall. “Lex? Honey? Do you want some dessert?” She stirs and grumbles something inaudible. She’ll be seated at a table within a minute or so. Lex powers up quickly. She certainly didn’t inherit that from her parents.
I smile to myself and tap on Gabe’s door. “Sweetie?” Five seconds. Ten. I tap again, louder and more deliberate. “Gabe?”
She doesn’t respond. I grasp for the handle. “Gabe, are you awake? I’m coming in.” From the kitchen, I hear Mark saying we should let her sleep.
But I know. Even before I check the closets, the tiny bathroom, under the bed, I know she’s not here.
Mark’s face plummets when he looks up and glimpses mine. “What’s wrong?”
“Did you send her on…an errand or something?”, I manage to choke out, my colors draining at a clip.
“Who, Gabe? She’s in her room, Kendra. I’ve checked on both of them every hour. No one’s been near the door except me.” He frowns and marches into her room. “Gabriella, come on out now. Joke’s over, OK?”
Silence. My shy, nerdy husband, a man whose DNA doesn’t include instructions for being rattled, closes his eyes for the briefest of seconds before he bolts for the kitchen island to retrieve his room key. I barely register the sound as I begin tearing open every door in our room, scouring frantically as my breathing pattern climbs.
“OK,” he gasps, holding the key up. “You stay here with Lex. Finish searching the room. I’m going to the front desk–maybe she’s waiting there for us. We need to meet with the manag–“
“She’s not HERE. Where did she go?”, I whisper in a voice so low he has to strain to hear it. “You said she didn’t leave.”
“She didn’t! I mean, she obviously did, but–look, I don’t know, Kendra, but right now, we–“
My legs are at their breaking point. “What HAPPENED??!” I scream at Mark, my head throbbing. The room turns grey. “What did you DO? WHERE IS MY DAUGHTER?”
Three minutes later, I smash the Down elevator button, tapping my foot incessantly. My clothing doesn’t fit properly–it hangs too loose and cinches too tight. Or is that my skin? I’m so exhausted I could collapse. Resting is and will forever be a mortal sin. I focus and try to remember breathing, a distressed husband on one side and my mystified, anxious elder daughter on the other.
Every ounce of my attention is being melted into that elevator. There’s no reason for me to notice the violent hissing at the far end of the hall. I’m spiraling too deep into own thoughts to recognize En-Chi, to see the worried expression on the overnight Housekeeping Manager’s face. I never hear Yu-Tung Huang, the man on whom I’ve relied since we arrived in Taipei, mutter that he could not interfere, that his heart and hands were equally weighed down. I sprint into the elevator with my family, and have no idea what he tells En-Chi about the hungry ghosts.
I’d originally written a bit about how this weird story came to be / is evolving…but then I deleted all of that because it was too lengthy.
Basically, I’d intended it to be much shorter, reached a point where it was obvious that wasn’t going to happen, and had to decide whether or not to completely change the plot halfway through, or stick with the original idea and split it into two parts. As I wrote, the story kept veering into the latter lane.
Because “Its Rhythm Reassures Me,” ended up being very nearly twice as long as most of my Patreon short stories, I feel comfortable considering it the short story for both May and June. It’s my first story that’s ended on a cliffhanger with a lot unexplained, and if I’ve done my job right, you’re hopefully like “Wait, WHAT? THIS IS REALLY COOL,” rather than “Wait, WHAT? THAT’s not satisfying!”
*Part 2 shall be upon us soon.*
Want to see everything I’ve created in the same place? Because you can do that!