With a loud and undignified guttural moan, my chest heaved violently as air rushed into my lungs and I spluttered back to life. My body ached all over as I strained to roll onto my side, my body laying heavy and fatigued on the hotel’s cheap carpet. Spasms rumbled over my lungs as they once again learned how to breathe normally. After what seamed like hours, I managed to pull myself into a kneeling position with my arms outstretched in front of me in a parody of a yoga pose, coughing and retching uncontrollably of course. My throat burnt like three dollar whiskey as I drew down ragged breaths. The world was a blur as my eyes streamed tears, and by the gods I hurt all over. Searing pain ran across both my shoulders where the spectre had carried my spirit, astral projection, or soul, whatever that had all been. I didn’t have the mental capacity to dissect the philosophical nature of the dream.
Breathing, as opposed to the previous attempts to force my lungs out through my mouth, became a little easier and soon I was able to rest my forehead on the patch of carpet between my outstretched arms. I coughed hard, but only once. A good sign that the spasms had calmed down. I lifted my head slightly as a test, the world was still spinning but it was almost at a bearable level. As I slowly tracked my eyes towards the bed on the far wall I noticed a folded piece of paper stuck under one of the legs. I leaned myself forward to get a better look but suddenly became aware of a loud noise from behind me. The door was moving rhythmically as someone unknown pounded against it from outside, calling out. My mind was still shaken and their worlds were muffled against the apparent cotton stuffed in my ears, but I could make out the general gist as they asked if I was ok. I tried to reply but only a muted half noise spilled out of my mouth. I struggled to stand up, making it only to one knee before the world started to spin far too much.
I quickly threw a hand over my eyes to block out the nauseating visions and stop my stomach from lurching up my throat. Reaching blindly backwards I eventually found the door handle and managed to turn it just as I heard the jingle of keys from the other side. I shuffled myself forward to give them room to come in, reaching out for anything to steady myself on. I felt rough hands clasp my shoulders and I let out a soft cry as they pressed against my aching body, but I let the unknown helper guide me up and over towards the bed. I waved away the bed and motioned for the arm chair in the corner, I didn’t want to lay down any more for fear of another coughing fit. Only when I was safely in the chair did I even think about opening my eyes again.
The room had a slight tilt to it but for the most part it was stable. I looked up and saw the all too familiar burgundy uniform of the hotel. A man I had never met before was standing next to me, a reassuring hand on my shoulder. I mumbled a thank you and moved his hand, the pain had faded a little but my skin was still tender to the touch. I thought about getting a mirror to look at my back but the idea alone made me dizzy. Leaning back slowly I tried to relax a little and regain some semblance of normalcy. The hotel employee said something I couldn’t understand and walked back out into the hall, returning a few moments later with miniature bottles of alcohol and pillow mints. I smiled weakly at the bottles as he offered one to me. I unscrewed the cap as quickly as I could, knocking back the clear liquid inside. It felt good to drink something. Even better that it was free.
He offered me the mints telling me to eat something and that it would make me feel better. His quiet reassurance made me believe him. The chocolate melted in my mouth and the sea of peppermint escaped bringing a refreshing sense of being with it.
‘Thanks…’ I mumbled, looking up at him properly for the first time. The guy was tall with a heavy set jaw and short blond hair. His dark brown eyes looked older than his body did. He had that look I’ve seen on veterans’, and some cops who have been on the beat too long. The longing for a quiet life but knowing they’ve been through too much to forget. He removed the empty bottle from my hand and replaced it with a glass of water. Usually I wouldn’t touch the stuff but I could feel the effects of dehydration kicking in and knew there would be a horrid headache hiding somewhere in the back of my brain. I downed the water quickly and motioned for another small bottle. He hesitated momentarily but gave it to me anyway. I poured back the small offering, not bothering to taste it, and I began to feel better.
A breath escaped my mouth as I let my recovering body relax fully into the chair. I held the half empty bottle close to my chest and looked up a the man.
‘Thanks again.’ I said, and meant it.
‘Not a problem.’ He replied taking a seat on the edge of the bed. I looked at his name tag and saw he was called Siegfried. I took a sip from the bottle and looked at him.
‘You one of those special staff I’ve heard about, Siegfried?’ The man smiled and nodded.
‘Yes,’ he said, a thick German accent coming through now. ‘I help wanderers like yourself from time to time in thanks for the help I received when I first arrived. I’ll probably move on at some stage but for now it’s a job and a place to stay.’
We smiled awkwardly at each other, too polite to come out directly and ask our questions, which was odd for me. It was Siegfried that broke the ice first.
‘You must have had a rough journey from the looks of it. Usually it’s a fairly simple process. Where did you come from, if you don’t mind me asking. You’re not a giant are you?’ The last question threw me for a moment. I tried to laugh but it came out as a rough cough.
‘No,’ I reassured him. ‘I’m not a giant, frost or otherwise. To answer your other question, I’m not quite sure where I came from. One moment I was here, the next I think I was in Hel?’
An audible gasp came from my new friend.
‘Hel?’ He asked. ‘How did you get out?’
‘I’m not quite sure myself. Seems I was rescued by some flying black spectre?’ I tried to shrug but my shoulders ached too much. I was really going to have to look at them soon. ‘I’m guessing that this sort of thing doesn’t happen that often. People being rushed down to Hel and back again?’ He shook his head, no. I leaned forward so I could get to the picture I hoped was still in my pocket, it was. ‘Don’t suppose you happened to help her the other day?’
I handed over the image and sat back, resting the muscles that I had just strained. Siegfried studied the photo for a short while before handing it back. I gestured for him to put it on the bed, I was too exhausted to move again.
‘Yes, I’ve seen her.’ His voice went soft when he spoke. ‘The manager brought her up to me and said to take care of her. I got clothes from the spare wardrobe we keep, and gave her maps, and food. She was very hungry, wanting to eat everything. I told her to slow down or she would soon lose her figure but she just laughed at me.’ He shrugged.
‘Do you know where she was headed?’ My eyes were starting to get heavier, this time from over exhaustion, not some weird godly powers or whatever it was that took me before.
Siegfried could tell I was tired and said so. He got up to leave me alone but I reached out and grabbed his hand.
‘Where did she go?’ I asked, my exhausted body pushing for the smallest bit of information. Siegfried brushed my hand off gently.
‘She said she had to find the light. I’m sorry but that’s all I know. You need rest. I will bring you breakfast in the morning.’ He made for the door and left me alone in the room. The light? I queried in my confused mind. What light could she be looking for?
I, or rather my exhausted body, decided that it could wait till morning. I didn’t have any solid leads and I was going to be useless anyway. I pushed myself up out of the chair and shuffled over to the bed, collapsing in a heap. There I quickly succumbed to sleep and I let it embrace me like a familiar lover.
I woke with a start a few hours later, my face buried deep in the impossibly soft hotel pillows. Despite the heavy window dressings I could tell that it was still night outside. Somehow I found the strength to roll my tired frame over, the surveillance photo crinkled under me as I shuffled on to my back. Looking up at the bland ceiling I started thinking about my life or lack there of. I wondered if I had truly died last night or if it was some cruel prank of the gods. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least to think Hel wanted to check up on me and dragged me down to her level just to say hi. In my personal experience, the gods tend not to think about how that sort of thing would affect a mortal, physically or mentally. Come to think of it though, there was a distinct lack of a goddess in Hel. The empty hall and throne was strange which could indicate that it was some sort of lucid dream, rather than a grim reality. I’d have to ask Siegfried if he knew what that meant, hopefully he had a better idea of what was going on in the Norse pantheon than I did.
Over the next few hours I drifted in and out of sleep. Every time I opened my eyes the glowing red numbers on the bedside table alarm clock told me it was closing in on nine in the morning. Despite being far earlier than my usual wake up time I couldn’t sleep any more. The pain in my shoulders had died down to a dull ache and my head felt much clearer. After a few cautious attempts I found that I could stand without wanting to spread the contents of my stomach around the room, which was a marked improvement on before. Shuffling over to the bathroom I turned on the taps over the sink after being blinded by the harsh florescent lighting. For a while I just stood watching the water flow down the achingly white bowl. The noise of the water helped to both calm and wake me slightly. My hands rested on either side of the porcelain basin as I looked up into the mirror that ran the length of the wall in front of me. I had clearly seen better days, but not for a few years now. My grey-blue eyes sagged and their tired lids hung down low.
This was going to take more than a quick face scrub to fix. I turned off the sink and instead turned on the shower. Soon piping hot steam filled the small hotel bathroom. I stripped off the clothes I had worn for two days straight and slid under the scolding water. Standing on the spot I let the flow of heat run over my ragged body and lavished in the luxury. My poor shoulders stung a little under the water but they soon settled down. I made a mental note to check them in the mirror afterwards. Time lost all meaning standing under the shower head as I toyed with falling back to sleep, I woke myself up enough to remember I needed to clean the trauma of the previous day off and that I would most likely slip and fall if I fell asleep.
It felt good to be clean once again as I stepped out into the mist filled room. I grabbed a towel and began drying myself, patting softly over my shoulders. I made a clean spot on the mirror so I could see and turned my back to it. Now I knew why they were so sore. Three bright red claw marks ran over my shoulder blades, digging deep into the soft flesh. They were as red and raw as a butchers shop window but showed no signs of bleeding. I tentatively touched one, running a cautious hand over the long red marks. It dipped into my flesh but hurt no more than a simple scratch would. I shook it off, not much I could do about it now and they looked as healthy as they could ever be. I towelled off and looked once again at my face in the mirror.
It was well and truly past five o’clock as I ran a hand over my large chin, feeling the roughness that grew there now. I knocked the plug into the sink and turned it on disappearing into the main room to find my shaving kit. Afterwards I felt like I was a new man. Nothing failed to refresh me like a good straight razor shave. Rinsing my face in ice cold water I could feel the life flowing back into me. I grabbed another towel and patted down my clean shaven skin. In the mirror I could see the tiredness had receded but not gone. Forty years of living doesn’t disappear with a clean shave, but it does make life feel a little more bearable. The sweet scent of sandalwood filled my nose as I rubbed on some aftershave balm. A quick comb through the sparse remains of my black and grey hair and I was ready to meet the world. I grabbed a relatively clean shirt from my case, deciding I could get another day from the trousers and tie.
After dressing I opened the curtains and let the morning light flood into the room. The view was obstructed by the tightly packed nature of London but the effect wasn’t any less. Orange and gold rays of light peaked over the tall buildings. Long, slow shadows eked their way along the streets and over buildings slowly disappearing from sight. My window wouldn’t open so I lent my forehead against the cool glass and watched the people mill about on their way to work or what ever errands the new day had in store. I was surprised by my current attitude. Back home I dreaded the morning and often spent it hidden beneath the covers and a deep hangover, a ‘good morning’ was something that happened to other people. I chalked the new found attitude to jet lag and my trauma from the night before. I wasn’t worried long though as I could feel my old self cawing back as my empty stomach began to make itself known. I wondered silently if I should go down for breakfast or stay here and wait for Siegfried.
I decided to wait in the room. The thought of having to mingle with people going about their business of being happy tourists and overly ecstatic wait staff wishing you a good morning and have a nice day was too much. A small knot of anxiety formed in my stomach and my appetite was sated for a little while. I sat in only chair in the room and waited. The bed lay mostly untouched apart from the ruffled covers where I had fallen asleep. After a short while I began to get restless. While I normally didn’t mind sitting around doing nothing it was ultimately more frustrating when I was on a case. I should be getting out there passing her photo around to shop assistants and taxi drivers. I willed for Siegfried to hurry up and began to hope that I hadn’t just dreamed the promise of breakfast.
Header image by Aleksey Ihnatov from Pixabay.