The hotel lobby was filled with broken things. Broken beer bottles. Broken plastic chairs. Broken men and woman. The air was humid and thick, pungent with alcohol and vomit.
The desk clerk was dozing behind the counter where he sat. He wore a dingy, white wife-beater; holes and stains battered it. Flabby flesh slopped through the rents and mushroomed over his belt buckle. He had more hair on his face and on the sides of his head than he did on the top of it. He made up for it by combing the sides up and over the pinnacle of his dome.
Someone ringing the bell on the counter woke him up. At first, he didn’t see anybody there. Not until he heard a young girl’s voice say, “I need a room,” and he got up and peered over the top.
The girl was cold. She had her arms wrapped around herself. She was only wearing a sweater and jeans. The clerk wished he had something to cover her. But all he had was his jacket; a rumpled, filthy leather, tossed over the back of the chair behind him. He didn’t want to cover her with that. She couldn’t be older than eleven. Maybe twelve. What was she doing in a place like this? Alone.
“What? I can’t give you a room, kid. Why don’t you go back home. Running away isn’t the answer. It’s not safe here.”
“I need a room,” she repeated, more of a plea than a demand.
The clerk wanted to help her. But he wasn’t going to let her stay here. This was no place for a kid. No place for anybody.
“Not gonna happen, kid.” The clerk reached for the cash draw. He punched it open. It slid out with a ring. He pulled some cash out and handed it to the girl. “Here, use this for a cab. I’ll even call one for you. Go back home.” Maybe, that was where she didn’t want to go. Maybe she got abused or something.
She ignored the hand holding out the cash. “I can’t go back there,” she said. “It’s not safe.”
Just what he had thought. “You don’t gotta be afraid,” he said, reaching for the phone on the counter. “I’ll call the police. They’ll keep you safe.”
“That’s not true,” the girl said. “Nobody can keep me safe. Not yet, at least.”
The clerk’s heart almost broke. He saw the sadness in her eyes. Saw the tears threatening to break. He was going to call Child Services anyway. She was too young to make such decisions. But before he’d make that call, he’d have her dry those eyes of hers. Sorrow wasn’t something the young should endure. He looked around the counter for a second and quickly found what he wanted. A box of tissues.
“Here, kid. Dry those eyes.” He handed her the box.
This time, unlike when he had tried handing her the cash, she reached out her hand. But it wasn’t the box she laid her hand on. She grasped his wrist instead.
“Remember,” she said. “Remember.”