“So, you, see, ghosts?” Ahmed twiddled with the can in his hands. Beside him, Rochelle sipped at hers quietly. He heard her sigh slowly.
“Yes,” she bit the rim of the can. He didn’t need to look at her to know how carefully she was watching his reaction, how prepared she was to be stared at like some crazy person. Perhaps that was why she was the way she was. With the tattoos and the hair. Literally building up an immunity to all kinds of judgement. To all kinds of adversity.
“Well? Do the normal ‘what’ thing already,” she placed the can behind her and crossed her arms, fully prepared.
Ahmed let out a breath and looked at her properly. She was staring straight ahead, looking out to the coast, unblinking at the lighthouse. She seemed so solid against everything moving around her. The night wind whipped her crimson wine hair around her shoulders, and brought with it the chill from the sea waves. Ahmed himself was shivering slightly, though he would never bring it to light; his jacket lent to her in a gentlemanly fashion despite her insistence.
Her dark brown eyes shone with determination and a hardness, but still he could see the sadness that tinged their corners. They became more apparent as she turned to wordlessly question his lack of response.
“Oh,” he simply said. What could he say? Where would he even begin? “Um, what’s that like?” he scratched the side of his face in an attempt to be casual. Her brown eyes blinked a little slower; was she remotely surprised? He flashed a small smile, hoping to put her at ease.
Her lips pursed in thought as she tried to remember what the sensation of feeling them was like. You’d think she’d remember it as if she was describing how to walk, but this was more intricate a motion; one word answers would only serve to frustrate. Luckily, an approaching reminder materialised.
Her eyes darted here and there, picking up more and more traces of phantoms rising from their deathbeds. “It’s like… being in water. It gets harder to breathe the closer they get. The stronger ones give me headaches. I haven’t blacked out yet, but it feels like it,” she dropped her stare to her feet, instinctively trying to ignore the shadows that sprouted up before her.
Her breathing laboured as she described it and Ahmed looked around, in vain. “Would you like to go somewhere else?” he offered kindly, noticing her discomfort and her fixation on a particular spot quite nearby.
Rochelle chuckled. “It’s…it’s fine. Thank you,” she added, a bright smile and a nod of gratitude following. Ahmed grinned and downed his coffee.
“How long have you been working here?” she pipes up.
“About eight-nine years? Since I was a bellhop.”
“How many died on this rooftop since?”
Ahmed straightened. Hotel deaths were a taboo, a curse even to speak about. He himself had to deal with a rather sizable number since he started working here. In his tenure so far, he had witnessed the hotel be the site for at least nine deaths, a poor percentage of them proper accidents.
“How many do you see?” he cast his eyes upwards, as if he almost was refusing to witness her look around for more. But the air shifted with her, and the rustle from his jacket sleeve moving over the rough concrete vent block they sat on told too much. As much as he hated this aspect of the job history, he was still overbearingly curious as to how she saw them and how she reacted, thus he glanced at her out of the corner of his eye.
She was frowning, her eyebrows furrowed, in concentration or in pain? Her eyes however remained wide and staring, an almost maniacal look about her face. A pang of guilt made him slouch, but he kept his eyes on her, even shifting his sitting position to stare at her more.
Her eyes shot to him, their glimmering quality captivating him while simultaneously making him feel a touch uneasy. All of a sudden he thought of fairy lights in the winter frost.
He shot back what he hoped was a reassuring and apologetic smile.
“I count four,” she looked down again, retrieving her can.
Four? For rooftop cases, that was a little higher than he remembered. Most cases were done in the guest’s own rooms. But one mishap did spark back into his mind.
“I witnessed only one,” he confessed, his gaze travelling to a particular spot along the roof side. He shuddered and looked away quickly, forcefully shutting his imagination down. He focused on her hands instead,wrapped neatly around the can of coffee. He was expecting slender, delicate hands with perfectly maintained manicures as he was accustomed to shaking, but those weren’t her hands.
Her hands were with standout veins and her long nails were chipped. The tattoos on her left hand painted a mismatched galaxy trail of snowflakes and stars up to her elbow; and a pair of swallows topped her shoulder.
“Girl? Shoulder length hair, some kind of uniform?” Rochelle teared up a little, her voice breaking. She looked up again, over his shoulder.
Ahmed’s breath hitched in his throat. He didn’t want to see her again, even for the briefest of memories. But there she was, what was left of her, sprawled out on the front steps, where he was standing just a second before moving some bags in.
“So she’s still here?” he tried to follow Rochelle’s line of sight but of course seeing only thin air. A cloud of sadness descended on his features. How often he had lighted a candle for her on the steps of the hotel on the terrible anniversary only to find out it was for naught.
“I’m sorry, Mademoiselle,” he turned back to Rochelle, but couldn’t bring himself to look right into her eyes again.
“No, no, it’s okay. It’s good we came up here; I was wondering how to tell this to you,” Rochelle reached for his arm. Ahmed’s mouth hung open for a question that lost itself as it reached the tip of his tongue. How long had she seen her? Had she seen her from the moment she entered the hotel? And every time since then? How many others did she see?
“Thank you?” was all that managed to come out coherently.
To his surprise, a passing ray from the lighthouse illuminated the tears glistening on her bottom lashes. She hastily got up and turned away, her hands flying to her eyes.
“Oh no, please! Don’t cry,” he followed suit, reaching out to her. The bright yellow beam blinded him for a moment, but his hands found her shoulders and gently steadied the rest of him. As soon as his sight returned, he let go, his touch lasting barely a second.
“She’s leaving,” Rochelle wiped her eyes, looking at the spot where the girl had dropped from. “She’s… smiling. And she’s leaving,” she breathed out, her entire frame sagging with tired relief.
Ahmed too, felt the air lifting and warming, the chilly sea breeze now a comfortable coolness.
The lighthouse beam made one more round, and shrouded him and Rochelle in darkness once again. But unlike before, Ahmed felt like his sight had never been more clear.
“You brought her peace,” he realised, gathering Rochelle’s cold hands into his own.
She seemed dazed and languid, shaking her head slowly. “No, not me. I… I don’t know what brought her peace, but it wasn’t me,” she looked up to Ahmed, her brown eyes blinking. She was trembling, ever so slightly, and she looked to be on the verge of tears again.
In a move Ahmed himself didn’t anticipate, he stepped closer and brought her to his chest tenderly, hugging her with a breath that calmed the both of them down. Instinctively, she nuzzled against him, like an animal snuggling for warmth. But this was warmth of a different kind. He held her against him, thanking everything silently, and saying another prayer for the dearly departed girl.