After Doug punches the time clock in the office, he steps into the hotel courtyard. The cold hits first and pushes against his hangover. Then the wind cuts through his coat and flannel shirt and down to the layers of thermal underneath. Four buildings—A, B, C, and D—converge around the courtyard, and patches of wispy snow have formed on the walkway that connects the entrances. The hotel has another building, a few blocks away on Negley Avenue, and he’s already planning to go down there to salt the walkways when he sees Talia standing by Building D. Two linen bags, bulging with sheets and towels, weigh her down. She looks at Doug and waves him toward her.
Talia is one of the housekeepers. She’s in her early twenties, has deep brown eyes, and doesn’t blink much. Her voice is all air from the back of the throat, just above a whisper.
Doug has to lean in to hear her when she speaks.
“Can you give me a ride down Negley? I want to get there before Mackenzie tries to ride me down.”
Her eyes narrow and she looks off to the side when she says Mackenzie’s name.
Doug’s hangover headache swells and he closes his eyes hard to push it back down.
“You ready to go now?”
“I got more bags in the linen room,” Talia says.
Doug reaches for the linen bags on her shoulders. “I’ll take those to the Jeep and get it warmed up.”
As Talia rolls the bags off, some of her braids get caught on the drawstrings. She untangles herself and heads back into Building D. When Doug heaves the bags over his shoulder, he’s surprised by how much weight she had been carrying.
On the way to the Jeep, Doug sees Mackenzie in the parking lot walking in from her car. She has on white ear-muffs, a pink scarf, and a puffy white coat. The coat is wide in the shoulders and, because of how she’s wearing the scarf, it looks like she doesn’t have a neck. Her voice cracks through the still winter air, and everything she says comes out all at once.
“Morning Doug I’m going to need to you get some salt on that walkway in the courtyard and as soon as you’re done with that start checking the trash and then—”
Doug recoils and she stops mid-sentence.
Her orders echo off the hotel’s brick walls, then everything is quiet again.
“I’ll get right on that,” Doug says. He stands up straight and tries to look as awake and sober as possible. “I just have one thing to do real quick.”
Mackenzie stares at him and he’s sure she can tell he’s hungover. She looks at the bags he’s carrying.
“Are those for Talia?”
“They were in the office,” Doug says. “Stephanie told me to take them to Negley when she saw me clock in.”
Mackenzie blinks twice, deliberate and accusing. “If you see Talia, tell her to meet me in my office.”
“Will do,” Doug says as he starts for the Jeep.
“We need that walkway salted ASAP,” Mackenzie says. “Someone could slip and fall!”
The Jeep is parked next to the maintenance garage. Doug throws the bags in the back before starting the vehicle, then gets out and goes to the garage. As he punches the code into the garage door keypad, a wave of nausea rises to his throat. He takes a deep breath to contain it, then manages to make it into the garage without throwing up. Last night, after finishing a paper for his Macroeconomics class, Doug started drinking pounders alone, and passed out on the couch. Since Mackenzie took over as weekend manager, Saturday’s and Sunday’s have been hard on everyone, and Doug’s been coming in deliberately hungover to blunt the effects.
In the garage, he grabs a bucket of rock salt and heads back for the courtyard. When he gets there, he sees Talia poking her head out of the Building D door. More heavy bags of linens and supplies hang on her back. He walks over to throw salt around the entrance.
When Talia sees the bucket, her eyes sink.
“Is she here?”
Doug nods. “She came in early. She told me to do this ASAP.”
Talia cranes her neck to look down to the office.
“This’ll only take five minutes,” Doug says. “The Jeep is warming up if you wanna wait there.”
Talia’s eyes dart from one end of the courtyard to the other.
“I’ll go out the back,” she says.
The door closes behind her and she disappears.
Doug makes his way from one end of the walkway to the other, tossing salt as he goes. When he gets to the entrance across from the office, Mackenzie’s voice shatters across the courtyard.
“Who were those bags for?!”
Doug flings a scoop of salt and pauses to contemplate just how paper thin his earlier lie was. The headache grips his temples and hangs on as Mackenzie’s boots crunch against the salt on the walkway behind him.
“Stephanie says she doesn’t know anything about them!”
Doug turns around to lie to her again. “You know what? I saw them by the break room and I knew they had to go to Negley.”
Mackenzie scowls at him. “You just worry about unclogging the toilets and the maintenance checks. If I need help with housekeeping, I’ll let you know!”
Doug flashes Mackenzie a thumbs up and turns to throw more salt on the walkway. As he does, Mackenzie stomps toward the Building D door. The key-card reader beeps as she swipes her card and goes inside.
Doug tosses a few quick scoops of salt and turns to head for the Jeep, hoping that Talia is already there and she didn’t make another stop in the linen room. When he passes the door, Mackenzie rushes out alone.
“Have you seen Talia?!”
Shaking his head, Doug stops and looks at Mackenzie. Then, with some of last night’s buzz still dampening his inhibitions, he says, “Why don’t you just call her? Oh yeah, you won’t let the housekeepers have their phones on them!”
Mackenzie exhales loud. Because she has the scarf wrapped around her face now, her eyes are the only thing visible.
They pierce him.
“I know you know where their hiding spots are!”
“They don’t have hiding spots,” Doug says. “They just have spots where they like to take their breaks!” Then his buzz retreats, and he immediately regrets his insubordination.
Mackenzie fumes inside her puffy coat and scarf. If she walks out to the parking lot, she’ll see Talia in the Jeep, and Doug isn’t sure which is worse—that his lies will be exposed, or that Talia will have to ride down to Negley with Mackenzie, a guilty party in a petty scheme.
A light snow starts to fall. Mackenzie turns her neck-less body to look back at the office.
“I want the rest of the walkways salted by eight-thirty. After that, you get right on the maintenance checks!”
“All over it,” Doug says. He takes off through the breezeway and out to the parking lot, leaving Mackenzie alone in the courtyard.
In the Jeep, Talia has the heat cranked. Doug jumps into the driver’s seat, throws the vehicle in gear, and the tires skid as he pulls out of the parking spot. Talia looks over at him as he turns onto the street.
Even though they’re alone in the jeep, her voice is still quiet.
“You think she saw me?”
The roads are slick and the Jeep fishtails a little.
“We got past her,” Doug says.
Talia flashes the first smile he’s seen all morning.
“How’s your boy?” he asks. “He excited for Christmas?”
“He’s been bein’ bad,” Talia says. “I told him, ‘You’ve been really bad this year, Santa Claus might not have any presents for you!’”
Doug guides the Jeep down the street toward Negley and, safe from the boss for a few minutes, he and Talia ease their way into the first hour of the Saturday shift.
Garth Porter is a truck driver from Western Pennsylvania.