My lover is full of holes. I unwrap their bandages and apply fresh unguents and try not to mark the disease’s progress. I cover them again with gauze and blankets, and when I finish, they fall asleep. Their body is laced with tubes—colorful, dead, makeshift limbs that maintain their grasp on the world.
Restless, I explore their home. It is full of useless things: records and dead game consoles and books we no longer have the strength to read aloud. Empty frames for beekeeping. The guts of an old grandfather clock. It is not hard to remember the better times these marked; it gets easier every day. The trips we took together to the beach; the long nights dancing until we thought the living room floor would break; the afternoons we’d laze together under the sun and watch the world turn.
I am not sick, but all wellness is temporary.
One evening, I say, “Soon you’ll go north. Away from the fires and rot.”
They smile thinly. “We’ll go, K. Together.” They know that this is not how it works. The world cannot stand to have two people together out in its wild air. Groups of wanderers find themselves dispersed, each with one tenth their supplies, stumbling through the mist and ash. On my journey south, from my home to my lover’s, I did not see a single soul in the open world.
“We’ll be together in the end.”
“Okay, then,” they say, humoring me. “Tell me where I’ll go. The places that I’ll see. Draw it out for me so I’ll know the way—the stops you made, the constellation you traced to find me.”
I think of my weeks spent evading the desolation, the burning and decomposing world. All the places I rested my head, unsure if I would ever wake, if I would ever see my lover again. Told in reverse, it is a tale of hope—fear to freedom, despair to trust. Knowing this, I begin.
— ACHERON —
At the Acheron Motel, all lost things are returned to you. When you check in, the staff do not take your bags. They meet you in your room with a dozen handcarts, stacked high with cardboard boxes, and arrange them on the floor, the bed, the dresser. There is no space to unpack, to lie down. If you want to get any rest at the Acheron Motel, you will have to make decisions about what to keep and what to leave behind.
In the boxes, you find the college sweatshirt you left in a movie theater, and it still smells like your ex’s vanilla lotion. The copy of Persuasion you lent out that was never returned. Letters that fell behind your best friend’s couch before you moved to a city where no one knew you. You delight in each of these—so pleased that pieces of an old life come back so easily!
But no matter how long you search, no matter how deeply you dive into those assembled boxes, you never find the things you willingly gave up. Childhood toys you donated, clothes you traded to untrustworthy people. Photos you sliced in two, believing you’d never want to look at them again. When you, aching and sleepless, come out of the Acheron Motel, you bring only what has been taken from you.
— LETHE —
At the Lethe Plaza Motel, it is known that language is a virus. You find no signs, nothing to point the way or announce what time the continental breakfast begins. No voices fill the hall. Even the motel’s sign out front has been washed clean—its plain boards, repainted nightly, are a wide, white plane that reflects the light of the fires and sky. The Lethe Plaza Motel’s name exists only on maps; you are never quite sure that you have found it, which is the surest sign that you have.
Should you try to speak as you check in—to give your name, or confirm that the continental breakfast ends at nine-thirty—the concierge gently sits you down on a firm, but not uncomfortable, couch, and waits. They sit, and smile, and take your hand should you offer it. When they are reasonably sure you will not speak, they lead you to your room.
The staff of the Lethe Plaza Motel knows that language seeks repetition and metamorphosis in the mouths of parents and children. It is passed from body to body, seeking new teeth and tongues that it might infect so as to take dominion over the world. In shared language, something must be named to be known; in this way, it prevents us from seeing the world except as it dictates.
Though you are left without explanations, your bed is warm and soft. You delight in the motel’s quiet—so still in such a reckless world.
But more extraordinary than these comforts are the concierges. Raised from infancy within the silence of the motel, each has their own private language. They write poems so complex and precise, so perfectly attuned to the syllables of their own devising, that to understand the lines in their original form would be indiscernible from experiencing that which they describe.
The concierges protect their languages fiercely. Should their words be translated, or their languages shared, their poetry would collapse beneath the weight of new tongues. More than one guest who insists on speaking has found themself in the middle of a road, consumed by rot, the bones poking from the rough holes in their skin.
— PHLEGETHON —
Should you check into the Phlegethon Budget Lodge by night, you are hit with an unbearable wave of déjà vu. You study the faces of the concierges, the bellhop, the other guests. Didn’t they go to your elementary school? Weren’t they in your church choir? The carpet pattern and shape of the couches remind you, inexorably, of your childhood home. The TVs all play Bruce Willis movies you’ve never heard of, but feel certain you saw years ago before the satellites went down. You get the sense this is where you have been heading all along—that if you only wait, all the people you have ever known will assemble here as if at a wedding. That everyone—your piano teacher, your softball coach, your uncles and aunts—will dance and rollick through the halls, will cheer your name and bring you close and whisper of the deep respect and love they have long held for you.
It is a very different experience to enter the Phlegethon Budget Lodge by day. To do so is to enter a nightmare world where all space is unmoored from meaning. You see a chair and cannot say what it is for. You stand atop it and feel dizzy and step off. Your clothes seem to belong to someone else. You must have grabbed the wrong bag at the airport, except that there are no airports now, no anonymous carousels of luggage. Is any of the world real? Is any of your past, your present? You do a headstand in the middle of the lobby.
Because there are separate staffs by day and night, the employees of the Phlegethon Budget Lodge are baffled by your questions, no matter what time you arrive. They offer no solace, no answers. All you can do is wait for the light to change—the sun to rise or set—and, in that twilight, where both and neither of these states are true, to leave.
My lover is half-asleep again. Nothing is so exhausting as existing.
I wrap them more tightly in their blankets and surround them with glasses of water and watch the glow of the distant prairie fires. It’s funny—even when the world was whole, all our love was a dance across long distances. From when we met as teenagers till now, the years have been full of clatter and roar, train tracks and jet engines and cracked highways. Meetings in anonymous townships equidistant from our homes.
And here we are, together, waiting to cross another great distance.
“Was that all right?” I ask. “Was that what you wanted?”
“Nearly.” They nod dozily and smile. The shadows between their teeth are visible through their thin cheeks. “Why are all the beautiful things sad, and all the sad things beautiful?”
“Well, look at your house. The rot eats at the coping and roof, which lets in sky and the patterns of ashfall. Think of the ruined cities, the gapped glass panels gaping at the world like shattered crystal cliffs. Look at the tubes in your arms, the twisting jeweled fluid.”
“Is it really beautiful, though? Or do we tell ourselves that because we’re scared?” They cough, and their bed rocks on its wheels beneath the shake of their body.
“Here,” I say, “take more water.”
But they wave away the glass. “Just keep talking, K.”
— ARNO —
In the back of the Arno Motor Hotel and Arcade with Heated Swimming Pool, there is a pinball machine for every thing that is real. The machines sit in their own room, which seems to stretch forever in all directions. The ceiling lights are dim. As you walk around, some of the infinite pathways reveal themselves as nothing more than mirror tricks—possibilities closed off by smeared glass and your own dark reflection. In other places, you reach and reach and reach, expecting to find a wall, and there is only ever more air. All around you little silver balls clamor, bumped and flipped across their small worlds.
The machines beckon you with pre-recorded voices and glowing START buttons and promises of miniaturized reality. There are pinball machines for the ’80s sci-fi movies you watched at sleepovers, for the national parks you visited as a child. There is the camping grill you accidentally slammed your hand across, leaving four parallel burns on your palm. There is the coffee shop you went to every day of college, where you sat alone in sagging chairs writing term papers for other people. All of these pieces of your life in tiny, pinging versions, with score multipliers and chromed details—with complex but intelligible rules that become clearer the longer you play.
As you go deeper into the arcade, there are some things you cannot find. Your childhood home, for instance. The bleachers beneath which you kissed someone for the first time, simply because you’d been taught that that’s what bleachers were for. The road you took when you saw your parents for the very last time.
You do not know if it is because these things aren’t real, or were never real, or simply because you haven’t found their avatars among all the glimmering cabinets. Your anxiety builds as you go farther and farther into the mirror maze of it all, overwhelmed by light and noise. You should have gone to the heated swimming pool instead. You wander all night, eyes aching and knees creaking, searching and searching and stopping sometimes to play. Hours pass until you find a door at the back marked EXIT. To leave is to have your questions forever unanswered. This has always been leaving’s condition.
You go through the door, and emerge into illimitable daylight.
— RAHMA —
Looking back through the plate glass entryway of the Rahma Imperial Motel, something is off-kilter about the landscape you left behind. All the fields of ash and bone look more or less the same—but was the light so low a moment before? Were there quite so many dead leaves whirling on the wind?
Although there is only one way into the Rahma, there are countless ways out.
The differences become more apparent as you go deeper into the motel. Through barely open doors you spy other windows, vistas that are nothing like the world through which you’ve traveled. Gleaming, spiral towers that half-puncture the sky. Vast expanses flattened by snow. Waves spitting foamy spray across rocks where five-limbed creatures sun themselves. It’s unclear if these are other places on Earth—or pasts, or futures, or something else.
The rooms themselves are ordinary. Floral bedspread, dead TV, mass-produced Bible with pages ripped out for kindling or trade. You consider smashing through the windows, wandering into their distant lands. It’s true that to go to any other place seems a good plan, but what if you could not get back? What if you found yourself forever in some faraway and loveless world? You do not enter any; these rooms are not yours, nor are the worlds beyond their windows.
When you reach your own room, you are relieved to find the curtains drawn. You do not pull them back. You sleep. The next day you leave through the front door, and convince yourself this is the same world you left the day before.
My lover stirs beside me. I am draped across them in their bed, our fingers knotted together. I feel my throat hum against their skin as I speak, worlds written into our two bodies.
“I know those places,” they say.
“Oh, you’ve also stayed at the Rahma Imperial Motel?”
“No, I mean, the other worlds. The tower and the snow. The starfish.”
“Five-limbed creatures,” I correct.
“Starfish.” They cough a gobbet of bile onto the carpet. “The coast, three summers ago. And the snow—our cabin out west—”
“Perhaps, but who can truly plumb such interstitial spaces?”
“And the pinball machines—”
“Isn’t that the nature of a motel, though? That we’ll happily project whatever we might onto their blankness? That in being everywhere, they are nowhere, and something more?” My lover wrinkles their nose and is silent. Outside the window, the fires have peaked; it is hard to look through the dusty glass for long. I close my eyes and press my face to my lover’s rotting skin. “Listen,” I say. “Listen.”
— EUNOE —
The Eunoe Tourist Court appears to have been decimated by rot. There are no walls or rooms—only a charred concrete foundation and a crooked sign missing half its letters. Your first instinct is to leave. To stay here would surely be to welcome death. You would wake full of holes, skin peeling off like a tree’s bark, hollowed out as the building that stood here long ago. You do not realize that the Eunoe has been like this for decades.
If you continue down the cracked highway, the blackened flat foundation at your back, you may walk for several miles before noting that the remains of the Eunoe Tourist Court are no farther from you than when you began. Though the landscape has changed, though you have passed husks of burnt-out Volkswagen Beetles and cairns to the nameless dead, still—a hundred feet or so behind, lies that concrete expanse. You face it and walk backward, watching for any sign of motion. It stays at its fixed distance. You might walk toward it, but do not want to give it the advantage. Eventually you become exhausted, and fall asleep in some field or barn. The Eunoe is soon upon you.
However, if, upon first encounter, you instead approach the Eunoe, you’ll note that there is the faint sound of disco music coming from its cracked foundation. You cannot make out the words or tune—only a steady beat and shimmering guitar. You lie down, and it lulls you to sleep, and in this wall-less place, no harm comes to you. No rain falls, no ash gets into your clothes or food. The fires come no closer than they were, and your body stays free of rot. When you wake, all stiffness has left you. And the Eunoe, satisfied in its unfathomable desires, does not follow as you go.
— CARDONER —
In the halls of the Cardoner Travel Lodge Deluxe, the ceiling disappears into darkness above you. The walls are so high, the hallways so narrow, that you cannot see anything clearly but what is at your feet. Even this is unreliable: each time you think you’ve worked out the pattern of the carpet, the colors of its squares or the twisting arabesques change.
Your suitcase drags behind you because its left wheel has broken. You make four or five turns and still have not reached the check-in desk. You don’t even remember the front door. You must have made a wrong turn. There’s an electrical closet nearby—whirring machinery, the thrum of an elevator. You retrace your steps, waiting to reverse the turns you made before, but the hallway goes on and on without bend. Soon it will fork; now, or now, or now. You continue in this way.
When you at last give up, it takes even longer for you find to the electrical closet again. You are on the point of collapse. Tongue cracking from dryness, your feet blistered. But you make it. You open the closet door with resignation, indifferent to your fate.
Within, you find a blanket, a pillow. A bottle of Evian water, expired thirty years ago. There is a mint, though it’s fallen from the pillow and you unwittingly step on it. You eat it, even so.
The only other decoration is a system of brass counterweights hanging against the wall. They rise and fall as if powering a set of slow lungs. Like the walls, they disappear into darkness above, and you do not long concern yourself with them. You settle into the blanket, press your face to the cool pillow, and fall asleep to the weights’ soft motion.
You wake refreshed, ready to leave the electrical closet and wander, again, the labyrinth of the Cardoner Travel Lodge Deluxe.
I take a break. I filter silty water from the bathtub using an old T-shirt, and it is warm but sweet on my tongue.
The fires are lower now. I leave the house and walk to their edge and pull a bit of burning wreckage free with a set of iron tongs. Back in my lover’s living room, I set the flame on the hearth and we watch it burn.
“How is it,” my lover says, “that these places continue even as everything falls apart?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, are there really places with concierges and bellhops, with enough water to fill a swimming pool?”
“Of course. How else could I have made it to you?” I prod at the fire gently, uselessly, just for something to do. “The roads are rough, the world is broken. But there are havens between the fire and rot. There are enclaves of hope. A motel isn’t really a part of the world, is it? That’s always been true.”
I kneel and blow on the ember, begging it for more light, more warmth. I do not want to see the pity or distress in my lover’s eyes.
Still kneeling, I say, “Do you remember what it’s like to check in, to climb into a soft, clean bed? The small roar of suitcase wheels on carpet, the rhythm of slamming doors and clicking locks? All your most pressing needs are taken care of. Free of the conflicts and dangers of the world, the weariness. Nothing is required for you in a motel but that you rest.”
“But why would that stop—”
“You’ll see soon. Once you feel better. Here, let me tell you another.”
— IFINGIR —
The Ifingir Inn 6 is identified by the lushness of its carpet, the firm maroon velvet which extends across the grassy plains before you, rolling like a river. The Ifingir begins abruptly after a patch of nettles and weeds, miles distant from any road. It has neither rooms nor walls.
While following the carpet, you lose its start behind the world’s curve. It would be easy to follow it back the way you came, but why would you? There is nothing that way but thorny plants. The carpet grows softer beneath you.
As you carry on, you are joined by bumblebees, one by one. They encircle you, folding and refolding in endless murmuration. Soon the bees are so thick that you cannot make out the world beyond them—can only feel the carpet beneath you, follow its gentle path. The air is alive with an atonal humming incredible as any music. Some sunlight comes through the gaps between their bodies, but you are so shrouded in shadow that the air cools around you. The day fades, and stars come out.
You walk and walk and walk but do not feel tired. The bumblebees bomb your outstretched tongue with drops of dew and honey, and as you catch their sweet liquid, parts of you long forgotten come alive.
There is no end to the Ifingir Inn 6. You may walk its path for as long as you like, fed and clothed by bees. But the moment you wish to leave, all will melt into air, and you will find yourself on the hard, unyielding road—headed, again, toward home.
It’s dark now but for the hearth’s ember. The prairie fires have died, waiting for the morning sun to rekindle their glow. In the silence I think about the house I left back north, the disco records and scratchy video cassettes, the books I will never see again. Photos and souvenir snow globes brought back from far-off places, reminders of the way my lover and I conquered distance again and again.
I think about the day the electricity died. My journey here through the abandoned world. Not knowing if my lover still lived, and arriving the same day their legs gave out beneath the rot. I filled a shopping cart with medicine. The pharmacy ceiling Swiss-cheesed already, empty bird nests in the backs of shelves.
With a shovel, I coax the ember into an iron cage. It makes a serviceable lantern. I expect to find my lover asleep, but their eyes are sharp and focused on the flat black world. A piece of wall above us succumbs to rot, falls, oozes across the floor, but we do not flinch. We are used to this.
“They’re nice stories,” my lover says.
I say, “They’re nice places.”
I say, “You’ll see.” I pull back the sheets, and my light shines straight through the holes in their legs, spotted shadows dancing like bees’ absence on the fitted sheet below.
“You’re not—” they say, and the words catch and they don’t finish. I hand them a glass of water—an improbable jewel in the ember’s light. “They’re not even motels anymore. Where are the people? Where are the rooms?”
“When you think about it, what is a motel?” They do not return my smile. “Genuinely, though—what, but a place of rest on a long journey? What, if not a safe place that is not home?”
“Come on, K. You don’t have to pretend.”
“Who’s pretending? Look, let me tell you about one final motel—the first I stayed in on my way to you. The last you’ll go to before you’re safe.”
— CELADON —
No one, not even its workers, know how high the floors go in the Celadon Tower Motel. The number grows or lessens, they say, depending on the number of guests, or the weather, or the motel’s mood. There are no elevators. To get to your room, you, like all the other guests, must take the stairs.
The stairwell is wide and spirals endlessly. As you climb higher, you pass castoff suitcases, clothes, food, toiletries—the results of people lightening their loads. Somewhere between the twenty-fifth and thirty-fifth floors, you abandon your suitcase too. It will be here, waiting, when you return.
Farther on, you meet other guests at rest on the landings. They use camping stoves to toast bread and roast vegetables. They carry guitars and mandolins and ouds, and improvise small songs that echo all the way up the stairs. In the Celadon Tower Motel, no one asks where you are going or where you have been. No one asks for your name of those of your dead. At night, you bed down among the anonymous others on the staircase’s wide steps, the air warmed by collective heat.
During the day, you take occasional breaks to explore the floors you pass. From behind the doors come loud cheers, the sound of confetti poppers, insectile buzzing, poetry recitation. The low exclamation of a game machine as someone achieves a new high score. Reminders of the journey you have taken, or will take. Reminders of all the old distances you once crossed. You return to the stairwell renewed.
The stairwell is filled with songs and the scent of foods you have not tasted in months. When someone is seen descending, everyone applauds softly—pleased to know that it is possible to reach their goals, or possible to give up, and encouraged either way.
At last, the stairs stop. Your journey ends. This is the floor where you will stay. Through the windows at the end of the hall, you can see out across the places you left behind. From so high up, there is no fire, no rot, no abandoned roads. There is only the azure expanse of the world.
You hold your key in shaky fingers. The lock clicks open, and you step into the room, and there I am, waiting for you.
“There it is,” they say.
I take their hand in mine. We breathe slowly and in tandem, gentle as the lap of waves. I look at the darkened corners of this, their house, which we filled slowly together with reminders that there was a time other than this. Soon it will fall apart; soon there will be nothing but a rotted foundation, an eyeless socket on the face of the land.
But perhaps there is some hope for us. There are stranger things in the world, after all.
“K.,” they say. “Promise that—”
“No.” In the lantern’s faint light, I notice the first hole opening in the back of my hand, flesh retreating like singed paper. “I’m not going anywhere.” I grip their hand tighter, and by and by the lantern dies.
In the morning, the fires’ light floods again the rolling distant plains. Smoke stains the sky sepia. The holes in our house are a little wider, the wind a little more ashen. But we are both still here. As I cook breakfast, my lover begins to talk—telling again, and for the first time, the story of how, together, we will leave.
Katherine Packert Burke is a graduate of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop and the MFA program at the University of Alabama. Their work has also appeared in the Masters Review, Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and other places.