Just saw a fat golden retriever outside of Woolworths. That g-retriever looked like he’d retrieved a few too many jam doughnuts.
The dog journal lives under my bed and I read it often. Most of the things I’ve collected live under the bed, except for a painting I found in Room 44 a few years ago. The painting is of a naked lady and it hangs on the wall, as paintings usually do. Her smile is too big. Looking at her makes me uncomfortable and scared.
I love to look at her.
But Room 44 was special to me even before I found her. The light in there is always shifting—dark, light, dull, bright. The curtains are redder than all the other red curtains, and the carpet under my feet makes my soles hurt in an addictive way. Sometimes I lie on the bed for hours, and when I leave I feel as though I’ve just escaped something.
My first time doing that thing people do—you know, for babies and stuff—happened in Room 44. It happened with Lucas, who was the boss’s cousin visiting from interstate. He came into Room 44 one afternoon while I was cleaning and asked me about the public transport (as if he hadn’t already asked my boss).
The last guest had left a bad smell in the place, but Lucas didn’t mind that. He was persuasive and I was curious. I’m not really sure what happened or whatever, but afterwards my boss Roy was angry at Lucas and said I could stay at the hotel for free. That was good news because I had run away from home.
I thought maybe I could live at the hotel forever and Lucas would move interstate and we’d get married and have four sons called Lucas Junior, Roy Junior, David Bowie Junior, and Michael Junior (after my brother). But he left without saying goodbye, and I was too distracted by the transformation of Room 44 to be sad about that. I wasn’t sad or hurt or even upset.
We had done something to it—something like witchcraft or black magic—and now it was different from all the other rooms. It was an enchanted room.
And then Mister 44 came along.
It was a summer afternoon. I was running late with my tasks because the energy in Room 44 had been so heavy, I found it almost impossible to get up off the bed and change the sweaty sheets. I locked the door behind me as a man turned the corner and started down the long red corridor. He gave me an odd smile as he passed. I rearranged cleaning products on my trolley to the sound of the Room 44 door unlocking, opening, and clicking shut. Something in my head clicked too.
Pushing my trolley around the corner, I realised that I had never actually seen a guest enter Room 44. A snapshot of the man’s smile lingered in front of my eyes as I strolled by the lake after my shift. A golden afternoon sun bathed me in brightness, but part of me was stuck in that room with the shifting light.
There was something strange about that man.
I sat on my favourite bench overlooking the hotel. A figure appeared in the window of Room 44, and I laughed as if something funny or surprising had happened. I expected him to disappear after a few seconds, but instead he stood there like a cardboard cutout.
“Come on, mister. The view’s not that good.”
He stood there for so long, I began to wonder if he was staring at me staring at him. Twenty minutes or so passed, and I’m not sure at what point he vanished—I must have blinked to miss it.
A very strange man.
But I was thrilled. I dawdled into town for an open mic night, but all the jokes flew over my head even more than usual. Suddenly he was taking up all the space in my mind. I started calling him Mister 44 on the walk home, because—even though I’d only seen him twice—I already knew I would be thinking about him a lot.
I had no reason to pass through the second storey on my way to bed, but I raced up the staircase two steps at a time. The door to Room 44 faced me from the end of the corridor, which seemed longer and narrower than usual. It must have been just after nine, but it felt like midnight.
I stood by the staircase for several minutes, half expecting the door to creak open and invite me inside. The hairs on my arms stood up as I shuffled towards it. I imagined knocking and running away. I imagined knocking and waiting.
A man’s muffled laugh sent a shiver through me as I approached. I pressed my ear against the door, thinking he must be entertaining, but then he made a different noise. I didn’t know how to interpret the noise, but it was neither a laugh nor a moan nor a groan.
It scared me.
I scurried away when the sound returned louder, as if it might escape under the door and grab me by the ankle. It followed me back to my room and looped in my head as I showered. The water tickled me in a new way, and when I slipped into bed, the fabric stroked me like a pair of hands. The naked lady looked particularly naked. Her smile—that huge smile—was an invitation of some kind.
The line between pleasant and uncomfortable blurred as sharp pains shot up my legs and thighs. The sound played over and over. I was hot, frustrated, and restless. It must have been about 4:00 AM by the time I fell asleep.
But at eight o’clock I woke up calm and satisfied. For some reason I attributed these changes to Mister 44, and for a few moments—probably no more than twenty seconds—I believed I had paid him a visit in his room and we had done that thing people do.
You know, for babies and stuff.
I rushed through my work, eager to spend as much time as possible in Room 44. The room was immaculate, but something thick hung in the stagnant air. The smell wasn’t unpleasant. It was—just like the sound I had heard—unique.
It was only in the bathroom that some smears on the mirror caught my eye. They reminded me of the Satanist who used to scribble symbols into her maths book at school (she scared me, so of course I had a girl crush on her). I hesitated to wipe them off, thinking they might be important and perhaps the devil would punish me for it.
I had once drunk too much orange juice and seen Satan behind me—felt his breath on the back of my neck—so I knew he was real. My brother had walked past on his way to the fridge and said I looked weird, and I told him I was fine but had drunk too much orange juice because I thought it cured acne. I didn’t tell him the part about Satan being behind me because usually you don’t tell people stuff like that.
The light shifted as I returned to the bedroom, and for some reason I laughed. I imagined taking off all my clothes, climbing into the bed, and waiting. Would it be better than with Lucas?
The clock struck two, which told me I had spent almost three hours in Room 44 and it was time to go to the bar. Sometimes I had a drink with Roy after work, but this time he was busy replacing the barman, who had glandular fever from sharing his water bottle (don’t do that).
I turned away from the bar and spotted Mister 44 reading in the corner. I choked on a sip of beer because swallowing is too hard, and he glanced up as if he were expecting me. My feet took me towards him as my mind grasped at fragments of greetings and opening sentences. But he spoke first—a slow and foreign voice.
“Did you like the message I wrote for you?”
“What—what did it say?”
He shrugged. “Don’t you know?”
“No. Are you a Satanist?”
He smiled and offered me a seat in front of him. I sat opposite, spilling some of my pint as I placed it down. His amusement amused me. Suddenly we were both laughing.
“What did it say?”
“I’m going to write the same message tomorrow and the next day and the next day.” He sipped his own drink—whiskey on the rocks. “Eventually you’ll be able to read it.”
I laughed again, despite believing him entirely. I was about to ask his name—I could hardly call him Mister 44 forever—when Roy called me over to the bar and asked me why I was harassing the guests.
“What do you mean? We’re just talking.”
“Looks like he’s doing a runner.”
I turned as Mister 44 disappeared up the staircase, abandoning his whiskey on the table. Roy said we had been over this. He said we had been over and over and over it.
“I don’t—have we?”
He shooed me away as a guest approached the bar, and I left for my afternoon walk. Flecks of golden sunlight shimmered on the rippling water, but my eye was drawn to the dark window of Room 44. About eighteen minutes passed before Mister 44 appeared, quickly resuming the role of cardboard cutout. I sensed him beside me as I stared at him in the distance. The taste of orange juice spread across my tongue, and a rush of tingles sent my head spinning.
For a split second, he forced me to see through his eyes, and the smell of Room 44 filled my nose. There were smears on the window—I mustn’t have cleaned it very well that morning—and I saw myself sitting all the way on the other side of the lake. My shoes were white and my legs tanned and he was thinking how pretty I had looked at the bar. And then he said—I could feel myself in his body and the warm vibration of his voice—he said to visit him later.
Before I could think how to respond, I was back on the bench and he was gone from the window. My laugh echoed across the lake.
“Mister 44!” I shouted at the window.
A couple walking their greyhound veered away from me, but I didn’t care because something special and fun was happening between me and Mister 44 and nothing else mattered.
The corridor was longer and narrower than ever as I made my way to bed that night. The wallpaper looked wet, but when I touched it my fingers came away dry. I waited for that strange noise as I loitered outside Room 44, my fist hovering near the wood. He had told me to visit, but what if I’d imagined it? The doubt brought my fist back down.
My skin turned hot and prickly in the shower. He continued swirling around my head for the rest of the night, robbing me of sleep once again. But I woke up after about two hours feeling calm and satisfied. This time I was 100% convinced that I had visited him in the night and we had done that thing people do.
You know, for babies and stuff.
I laughed hysterically at the naked lady’s gleeful smile, before dressing myself and even bothering with a bit of makeup. Helpless giggles spilled out of me as I pushed my trolley down a maze of growing and shrinking corridors.
The symbols on the mirror remained meaningless for a week—a week of waking up thinking I had visited Mister 44 in the night, and a week of searching for him at the bar. A week of spying him from across the lake, and a week of passing by his door on the way to bed.
And with each day that passed, his power over me strengthened. I was beginning to know about things I had never known before—like how Venus spins in the opposite direction to most planets—and he made me do things that I might not have done otherwise, like touch one of the lady guest’s hair in the elevator.
But when I could finally read the mirror, it told me something that made perfect sense. It said:
I am the painter.
A vision of the naked lady appeared in the mirror, but she looked different. I sprinted downstairs to my own room and laughed like a madwoman at what had been staring me in the face for years.
She was me. She was me, and my relationship with Mister 44 had actually started years ago.
But before I could sprint around the lake to my favourite bench and attempt to communicate with him, Roy said he had to speak to me. He sounded mad, so I apologised in advance for whatever I had done. A security guard sat in front of a selection of screens. They both avoided my eyes, and my cheeks flushed with embarrassment. They must have seen me pressing my ear against the door of Room 44.
“This is very serious,” said Roy.
A screen switched on, and I saw a grey version of myself at the end of the second-storey corridor. My feet were dragging towards Room 44 as if weighed down by a ball and chain. The timestamp said it was after 4:00 AM in the morning.
I stopped about a foot away from the door and stood rigid. I stood there for about two minutes. And then I stripped.
Roy and the guard looked everywhere but at the screen as I removed every single item of clothing. I pushed myself up against the door and caressed it with my hands. I paced around, grinned up at the security camera, and then threw myself at the door so hard I knocked myself to the ground.
“Oh,” I said, blinking at the screen.
“Oh indeed,” said Roy.
I felt sick.
The door opened and Mister 44 stood there, his head bowing down at my helpless body. The painting of the naked lady—I suddenly realised—was from his perspective looking down at me in that very moment. Even on the grainy recording I could see myself smiling up at him. I half expected him to drag me into the room, but then the screen flickered off and we all sat in silence. I dabbed at a few helpless tears.
“He’s been—he’s been putting spells on me.”
“Yes, he smiled at me very strangely and drew odd symbols on the mirror. I felt him beside me and behind me and inside me like I was possessed, and I didn’t even drink too much orange juice—I barely touch the stuff. He—he made me do it.”
Roy rubbed his eyes. “What?”
“One time I drank too much orange juice and—”
“Nope, nope—stop right there. We’ve done our best for you over the years, but this kind of behaviour is—”
“Please, just question him. I haven’t been able to get rid of him since he arrived. I haven’t slept. I’ve felt him everywhere and I’ve even seen through his eyes.”
“I can’t question him because he left at the crack of dawn.”
“I—I’m not in control of any of this. He’s been putting spells on me and reaching inside my mind and taking over. I can—I can feel him right now.”
Except I couldn’t, and that scared me more than anything.
Neither Roy nor the security guard looked convinced. I was told that if I behaved in this manner again, I would no longer be able to work or even live at the hotel. They weren’t a charity.
“He wouldn’t just leave like that!” I sobbed as Roy patted me on the back. “We were doing something special. He wouldn’t just leave like that!”
They didn’t believe me. I didn’t believe me.
Because for the first time since seeing Mister 44, I was alone. Nobody left me secret messages on the mirror. No cardboard cutout stared at me from across the lake. No invisible hands stroked me. No creepy noises looped in my head. Nobody forced me to see through their eyes or smell through their nose. There was no frustration, but also no excitement.
Spending time in Room 44 cheered me up a bit. The too-red curtains and the painful carpet and the shifting light gave me the uncomfortable nostalgia I craved. But I had to be out by check-in.
I was loitering outside when a new guest appeared at the end of the corridor. He carried a briefcase and had fluffy blonde hair. He didn’t look like Mister 44—who was dark and pale—but he smiled in the exact same way, and I knew in and instant he was back. He had changed shape and his hair was different, but he was back.
My heart soared. He must have sensed my eyes following him, because he turned and looked at me as he unlocked the door.
He smiled again. “G’day.”
“Can I visit you tonight?” I asked. “I promise I will.”
He blinked, his eyebrows raising as if I had just told him I was a lesbian seahorse. I skipped down the corridor and stopped a couple of feet in front of him. He jerked back against the door as I leaned forward to inspect him closer. He smiled in a way that made my skin crackle and pop like a campfire.
“How old are you?” he asked.
“Twenty-four. No, twenty-five. One of those.”
He hummed. “And you want—you want to visit me later?”
“I promise I will this time. I promise I will.”
Something in his expression changed as he eased off the door. Now I was stepping back.
He grinned. “Okay then.”
I grinned back. “Okay then. Finally! I can’t wait.”
I spun on my heel and skipped back down the corridor. I thought I heard the door to Room 44 open and close, but when I turned around again he was still standing in the doorway. We stared at each other for another minute or so—his blurry face was smiling that weird smile—before he finally disappeared inside. I sprinted all the way around the lake to find him standing in his spot by the window.
I grinned and waved at him, and he waved back. Nasty little red ants crawled under my skin and bit me everywhere. I was terrified and sick and furious, but I couldn’t wait.
It was better than the first time, and since then Mister 44 has taken many shapes. Sometimes he’s young and sometimes he’s old. Sometimes he’s a businessman and sometimes he’s in a band and sometimes he’s a career woman called Karen. Sometimes he’s Australian and sometimes he’s Japanese or Swedish or American. Sometimes we do that thing people do—you know, for babies and stuff—and sometimes he tells me he’s married and to go away.
I often find treasures in the room after he checks out. So far he’s left me a razor and a pair of brown stockings and a food diary and a packet of flavoured condoms and a Kinder Surprise toy and a curling iron and a bag of oranges and a solved Rubik’s cube (which I unsolved). But no matter how many times he disappears, I feel fine and happy and even excited, because I know it won’t be long until he returns and he would never ever leave me—not really.