The Sweetest Thing

Tonight is a night for stories, and I’ve got a story to tell. Imagine a quiet mountain town, with a quaint little mountain hotel.

The woman adjusted the strap of her bag, and shifted her posture to accommodate the added weight. She walked toward the hotel entrance. It must have been about 1am, nearing bedtime for most guests. And judging by the taxis returning to unload groups of staggering men, it must have been nearing the close of bar time too.

After her long trip, she was ready. Very soon she would be in cozy pajamas sprawled out on a king bed. She loved such business trips: short and sweet, with lots of down time. But first, she wanted to unwind for a bit. In a place like this, that meant sipping something laced with liquor, while she enjoyed the quiet of the grand fireplace.

The hotel lounge was contemporary cozy and spacious, peppered with a few night owls: a teenager mumbling into a cell phone, an elderly man weeding through a newspaper, a couple sharing a bottle of wine near the bar. Her eyes lingered on them for several moments, the way they smiled into one another, the way they caressed.

The bartender was reading from a hefty text book. ‘Good evening, Madam,’ he said as she approached. His eyes shone with a dreaminess she recognized. He inquired: ‘hot cocoa with amaretto?’

‘Please,’ she whispered. She watched the brisk movements of his body as he prepared her drink. The mug he slid her showed a muted beach scene, with Wish I Was Here scrolled in bright lettering. She brought it slowly to her lips. The aroma was like heaven.

The bartender was eying her eagerly. She tipped him well, prompting him to flash a suggestive smile. Men were always grinning foolishly at her. Too young, she told herself, smiling back involuntarily as she turned away. And too innocent.

Settling into a large leather sofa, she sipped her drink and stared into the flames. They spoke to her sometimes, in crackling hisses barely registered by the human ear. The fire’s panting warmed her feet and ankles and continued, slowly, to move upward. Allowing herself a few minutes of silent indulgence, she felt appropriately placed—or, she wondered, perhaps positioned would be the more suitable word, given the circumstances.

The firelight seemed to glow brighter in her presence. Although she became aware of the familiar, faint-yet-growing apprehension, the serene ambience could not help but draw a few pleasant sighs from her chest. She measured her breaths, directing the elemental exchange, in and out. She waited. She knew the next step would inevitably be a disruption of her solitude—essential to a suitable evening, though it may have been.

‘Scuse me,’ said a smooth southern accent, ‘this seat taken?’ A man, tall, donning casual business attire, sat down next to her.

Had she not been so actively engaged in self-soothing, this abrupt interruption might have been more akin to an invasion. But on a cool night such as this, in a plush setting such as this, there was little that could truly rattle her. She summoned a smile and a shrug, returned her attention to the dancing inferno.

‘I came down for a nightcap,’ he explained, shaking the clinking contents of the cup between his fingertips, ‘and realized I could not pass up an opportunity to sit by this lovely fireplace and such a beautiful woman. Hope you don’t mind.’

He leaned back into the cushions, which groaned beneath his weight. She noted darkish hair, thinning a bit in front, and a strongish build. He was not bad looking—though his nose was overly prominent on his face, a face which seemed to hold a permanent sneer.

He sucked a breath, audibly, between his teeth. ‘…Yep, in town for business. Energy, you know: oil, gas, coal and whatnot,’ he continued, as if responding to a question. ‘Two more nights here in the Appalachians, then on to D.C. Not a bad little city, this one. Sometimes it’s a bit boring. But sometimes…’ She could feel his eyes moving over her. ‘Sometimes it can get exciting.’

‘I’m Tyler, by the way,’ he offered in a bleary tone. He seemed to snarl certain words. ‘From South Carolina, by way of the lone star state. What’s your name, gorgeous?’

So it was to be a southerner this time. She debated whether or not to lie. ‘Astrea,’ she answered.

‘I like it!’ He exclaimed, inching closer to her. Then he rose suddenly, his stance unsteady. ‘Ok, hold on. Let me get us drinks before that little fella closes shop. You keep your sexy self right there,’ pointing a long finger in her direction. He chugged his whisky and left her.

Sitting all by herself had been relaxing and invigorating; she was able to gather her thoughts, to imagine the way events might transpire on this night. But she knew the loneliness could never last long. This was the way it always went. Men were drawn to her like moths to the flame.

The muscles in her face flexed momentarily, then released. Weren’t they foregone conclusions, then, these fated meetings? Still, she thought, surrendering to a bemused sigh, did she not sometimes enjoy this flirtatious game of cat and mouse—still, after all these years?

She was contemplating this and other ironies when Tyler returned. ‘Screw-driver?’ he asked with a wink.

She nodded politely and took the drink from his scuffed hands. After such peculiar, ritual transactions, she always felt slightly obligated to at least talk with them. The man sat so that their legs were touching. She found this slightly disconcerting but decided to say nothing. He smelled of musk, tobacco and some faded, earthy cologne. Plus a hint of belligerence.

‘I have more drinks in my room, when we run out,’ he whispered with another wink. His breath was bullion and bourbon. Then he patted her knee with a heavy hand. ‘I’m just playing with you, girl.’ His drawl now had a definitive slur to it.

For the next twenty minutes she listened while he droned on about his home, his upcoming promotion, his gun collection, and a few underhanded hints as to why he preferred to remain single. With a slight yawn and stretch of her neck, she realized they were the only ones left in the lounge, apart from the disappearing night manager.

Tyler must have noticed he was losing her attention. ‘So what’s your deal? What brings you to the mountains, babe?’

She was his babe now, this man who she knew had no real interest in her or her specifics, perhaps other than the color of her undergarments. And although this brought a bitter taste to her mouth, it also made her feel a bit tired of pretending and hungry for company. And his company was, it would seem, just the right company for tonight.

The drink he brought was tart on her tongue. ‘I do contract work…’ Too vague. ‘…And I write,’ she added, clearing her throat. She was practiced at not revealing much of herself. Already too many unanticipated truths passed between strangers in lounges—or other places haunted with spirits.

This drunken stranger had somehow maneuvered his arm around her. ‘Oh yeah? I do some contracting myself,’ he said with a sly grin. He dragged his fingertips along her shoulder. ‘What are you writing,’ he asked in a low, sultry tone. There was no warmth in his touch.

She considered this. ‘Love stories.’

He snickered, shaking his head slowly. ‘Women and their goddamn love stories.’ His tone betrayed more than a soft hostility. He leaned toward her, seemed to sniff the air around her, lips curving upward. ‘Ain’t that the sweetest thing? … Tell me, are you having fun tonight, basking before this glorious blaze,’ he asked, mockingly, gesturing with the hand that squeezed his tumbler. ‘I want to hear some of your stuff.’

She leaned away from him and exhaled deliberately, turning back to the fire. ‘You can’t always get what you want, Tyler’ she whispered.

‘I can,’ he said, with a stern edge to his voice. ‘C’mon gorgeous, let’s hear an original line.’ She tilted her head to look into his eyes for the first time. They were steely. Storms stirring up a cold sea.

She stared into him, unblinking. ‘The latest story is inspired by a piece from Maya Angelou.’ She spoke as if caught in trance. ‘…Love arrives, and in its train come ecstasies, old memories of pleasure, ancient histories of pain. Yet if we are bold, love strikes away the chains of fear from our souls….’

Tyler gaped at her, gulping his drink. ‘What in the hell! Too abstract and gushy for my taste,’ he said with a hearty laugh.

‘It’s sort of a tragic love story,’ she said smiling a little. The tension had been broken. They would be friends again.

Tyler smiled widely, his face full of intent. ‘You’re kind of different, unique. I like that, girl!’ He nudged her with his knee.

Oh I could be anything you want me to be, she thought. But she knew she did not need to be coy in order to get what she wanted, and she was not in the mood to waste any more time. She could sense his mounting anxiousness.

‘Listen,’ he said, turning to face her, ‘I have some top shelf spirits in my suite. It’s big, very comfortable. I think we should take our conversation upstairs. The company got me a great room—and it even has a decent sitting area.’ She took a sip, raising her eyebrow.

‘I promise to be a complete gentleman,’ he said, taking his arm back. ‘We can just hang out, watch a movie on the big screen and enjoy some drinks. And when you get bored, you are free to leave me, even though that would make me…’ he pouted ‘sad.’

She finished her second drink and shook her head, feigning disinterest.

‘Ah, come on. I won’t hurt you.’

She searched his eyes, as if measuring the risk. ‘Ok. Fine.’

‘Ok!’ He sounded giddy. They stood, and she let him take her bag. ‘Phew, watcha got in here, stones?’ He strained as they walked to the elevator.

‘Work stuff,’ she said.

The doors opened at the fourth floor. ‘Now, I don’t usually invite strangers to my hotel room.’ He was lying. An awkward silence followed them down the hall.

The suite was indeed lovely for a suburban hotel. It had three distinct rooms, all visible from the foyer—a sizeable bathroom with a raised hot tub, a sitting room that featured an oak desk and picture window, and a lavish bedroom, wherein she could see clothes scattered across a four-post king bed. She glanced about, pretending to look impressed.

He placed her bag by a mosaic coffee table and motioned to the velvety couch. ‘Here, sit. I’ll make drinks.’

She watched him move to the mini-bar. She paced a bit, studied a wall mural of a lonely cottage surrounded by trees, listened while he fussed with glassware and ice. Their backs to one another, she wondered what he looked like without clothes and then scolded herself for such brash curiosity. She preferred all of this to happen a certain way, and she would need to stay focused to ensure that everything went smoothly.

Feeling more resolute, she moved to the couch.

Smiling, he met her there with two glasses, and handing her the one with a bit more drink to it, he said, ‘Cheers! To sexy new friends and late night possibilities.’ Together they tipped their heads back to swig the double-shot with one exerted gulp.

He winked at her, and this time, she winked back.

Then. Darkness seemed to engulf the room and them with it.

* * *

Thunderclap. Inside. Head. So heavy. Body aching, stretched.

Tyler opened his eyes only to find his vision significantly blurred. His brain was foggy, and there was quiet darkness all around him.

He tried to muster strength in his limbs, while attempting to piece together the where of where he was and the why of why his limbs felt so stiff and immobile.

Tied. His wrists and ankles were tied to something… the bedposts… at the hotel. Yes. Synapses were firing now. The last time he’d been tied to bedposts was during a holiday trip to Vegas. And that type of service hadn’t come cheap.

But this didn’t feel like some kinky game; for reasons not entirely clear to him, he felt like he was in real danger. His heart raced. Pull it together, he ordered himself. He racked his brain: he’d met a woman… they’d walked to his room together… they had drunk together, the special blend he often made for his female guests.

After that, nothing; the rest was blank. Had she switched their glasses—had he given her the wrong one, accidentally?

No, this couldn’t be happening. Not to him; he was careful. He twisted his hands and feet but his restraints were firmly secured. How in god’s name had she managed to knock him out, to overpower him? And how had he, at his height and weight, been lifted into the bed—especially when the girl should have been passed out herself?! Impossible, all of it.

Then it struck him: she must not be alone after all. That lunatic slut has some lunatic partner. Probably, they’d robbed him and taken off with his wallet and watch. Son of a bitch, he thought angrily.

His room was totally silent. Were they still there? Detecting no other presence, he guessed he was alone. He started to wriggle and writhe again. But before he could work at his bindings, fear froze the efforts.

His alarm and attention leapt to a far corner of the room, where a match blazed to life. In his haze, Tyler could make out the shape of the woman, lighting a small candle. It filled the dark space with dim illumination.

* * *

‘What the hell is going on? Untie me, you nutjob!’ He had tried to yell, but, instead, the words left his throat in a hoarse whisper. He was taken aback. ‘I can’t—scream?’ It was a question and a statement, both.

He watched her move slowly to the nightstand. She didn’t look at him; she started rummaging through her bag. He could hear metal and plastic objects moving. Her hand emerged with something long and gleaming.

‘Help!’ Again, the hoarse whisper. Adrenaline quickened his mind to a certain lucidity. What was it you were supposed to do in these situations: negotiate with the captor?

‘Please. Let me go,’ he begged, bending the syllables to sound endearing. ‘I can give you money, honey. Just tell me what you want.’ He smiled weakly and tried to focus enough to read her face as she leaned over him.

‘Hey, I—I thought we were gonna have some fun…’ The woman bent forward so that her face was inches from his own. She looked different somehow, other-worldly.

‘Fun?’ The word escaped her mouth like a song. ‘You do like to have fun with girls, don’t you. Feeding them drugged cocktails before you make them part of your hellish amusement.’ She sighed, shaking her head. ‘See, I know all about you, Tyler. The nightmare fantasies you’ve created. And tonight, I’ve decided to bring you into mine.’

She placed a hand gloved in latex upon his shoulder, ran her fingertips along his skin. ‘I’ve traveled a long way to find you,’ she whispered. ‘Let’s spend the night together.’

A quick movement took his breath away, brought searing pain in its wake. He seized.

‘Death?’ He mouthed, shivering.

‘No,’ she said. ‘But she’ll be here soon.’

(This story gratefully acknowledges the referencing of lines from ‘Touched by An Angel’ by Maya Angelou)

[Amber Hollinger hopes to contribute something decent (or indecent) by sharing her work, which has appeared with, S/tick, Rose Red Review, and Foliate Oak; and which is forthcoming in The Voices Project, Emerge Literary Journal, and others. She holds an MA in International Relations — not writing. She recently completed her first poetry chapbook (S)urge and is working on new short stories and non-fiction pieces.]


1 thought on “The Sweetest Thing”

  1. robin stark said:

    Loved your story Amber. I read it & wanted to keep reading but the story had ended. Great job! Keep me posted on your future stories. Robin Stark

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