The motel room that Muriel walked into wasn’t noteworthy in any way – it was neither expensive, nor cheap, but still reminiscent of vacationing on a budget – with a slight musty smell and worn carpet – but it was clean and well-maintained. Muriel slowly pulled off her coat, revealing a pink sweater worn over a baggy white blouse, and hung it up on the coat stand near the door. She shivered slightly, hugged herself, and rubbed her arms, then turned up the thermostat on the heater underneath the front window before sitting down on one of the two queen-sized beds, where she opened her backpack. She sifted through it and pulled out a photograph of her parents and stared at it.
She had almost forgotten.
How could she forget?
Burning tears stung her eyes as she crumpled up the picture and threw it away in the small garbage can by the bed; she didn’t know why she had packed it in the first place. Trying very hard to hide any signs of crying, she hurriedly grabbed the bag and ran to the bathroom, locking the door behind her.
Aion stood straight and tall in the doorway as a frozen breeze blew past him and into the room, taking a moment to look at the garbage can, his face hard and unreadable. In his mind he was weighing something, considering it carefully, until another thought came to him and broke him out of his brooding. Then he reached into his pocket, pulled out the key-cards for their room, and put one down on the nearby table, before quietly leaving.
The hot steamy shower reminded Muriel of how cold she had been, and the contrast hurt almost too much to bear. She had to acclimate herself slowly, starting at lukewarm and gradually adjusting the temperature up, wondering when the prickling goosebumps that covered her skin would subside. There was something inside that was untouched by the water and heat, a sort of emptiness that kept her feeling chilled in the center of her bones. She couldn’t remember if it had always been there, but her skin was turning bright red from the heat, so she slowly turned the water off and stepped out of the tub.
After she wrapped herself up a towel, Muriel stared at herself in the mirror, water dripping from her sopping hair. Her face looked strange and unfamiliar, and she felt sure that it belonged to someone else. She didn’t like her hair, which seemed too dark and too short, even though it hung slightly past her shoulders. Somehow, that didn’t seem like her; it didn’t seem like how she would keep her hair. Her eyes were a pretty shade of hazel, but they had a haunted look that frightened her. She couldn’t think of why her eyes would look like that. She quickly turned from the mirror and rummaged through her backpack looking for clothes, but, again, it felt like she was intruding on someone else’s life. The jeans were too big around the waist, and she had to belt them to make them stay up. The blouses were all baggy, bland, and unappealing. She pulled on something pink, because it seemed like the most vibrant thing she could find, and she didn’t want to feel faded.
Exiting the bathroom, Muriel was surprised to see a burger bag sitting on the table next to the mini fridge. She didn’t realize that she had been in the bathroom long enough for the man to leave and come back, but she appreciated that he had thought to bring her food – he must have gone to one of those all-right places, because the clock next to the bed read midnight. Muriel reached into the bag and was shocked to realize that the food was cold; she slowly sank down into a chair, baffled at how that was possible. It had felt like she had been in the bathroom for only a few minutes.
How long had it been? She hadn’t checked the time when they arrived; now, she wished she had. She felt fuzzy and awful; a strange buzzing began in her head, carrying her focus away for a moment.
The door opened and Aion stepped in, pausing to take off his coat, but Muriel stared blankly ahead of her, not responding to his appearance. She looked listless, but he wasn’t surprised. He walked over to her and very carefully took one of her hands, watching to make sure that she didn’t flinch or look frightened.
“Do you remember me?” he whispered.
Her eyes focused on his face and she frowned, trying hard to grasp something that wouldn’t come to her. She knew that she knew him, but the answer of who he was wouldn’t come to her. “I don’t … know,” she murmured.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
She paused, alarmed that she didn’t immediately know. Then, with some relief, she found herself replying, “Muriel,” and didn’t give any indication that it felt like someone else had answered for her.
“Where are we?” the man asked.
That one seemed easy. “In a hotel room.”
It wasn’t an easy question after all, and she lowered her head, biting her lip for a moment to repress the urge to cry before muttering, “… I don’t remember.”
Aion gently stroked the top of her head, his fingers sending tingles through Muriel’s scalp and down her neck, seemingly satisfied, despite her inability to remember such simple things. “Go ahead and eat, and don’t worry,” he said gently. “You’re experiencing a fugue state, but it’s nothing to be alarmed about. You’ll grow used to them in time.”
She wanted to cry again, because his gentleness hurt in a way that didn’t make sense. To cover it up, she quickly asked, “How long have we been here?”
“About two hours.”
Muriel nodded and pulled out the burger, peeling off the wrapper before she slowly took a bite and swallowed. Cold hamburgers were not as good as fresh ones; she clung to that thought because it was inane and meaningless – anything to keep herself away from the frozen pain that was trapped inside her chest, hiding just under her ribcage. “What was your name again?” she asked after a moment.
“Aion,” she repeated softly. “Am I going to be okay?”
“I promise that you will be.”
Muriel leaned forward and wrapped her arms around Aion’s chest, resting her head against him. The warmth from his body felt good, and reminded Muriel that she was still alive. She could hear his heart beating, and it eased tension out of her muscles that she hadn’t realized was there. Her cheeks were wet with the tears that she could no longer hold back, but it seemed safe to cry while hidden in Aion’s shirt. In turn, Aion wrapped his arms around her and whispered, “I’m going to make my failure right.”
Time stopped, and the bond between them was reawakened. Muriel remember that she had known Aion from somewhere, but the truth still eluded her. Her mind felt blocked from her by a black wall that couldn’t be penetrated, keeping her locked in the moment without a past or a future. But her heart still remembered, and she wanted to stay with him forever. She closed her eyes and drifted off into a deep sleep.
After laying her down in bed, and tucking the blanket around her, Aion stood looking out the window, thinking.
He had allowed himself to be too trusting, and weak, and that had ultimately prevented him from protecting Muriel like he had promised he would – and she had paid the price. He wouldn’t allow that to happen again.
But he wasn’t the only one who failed on that night. He retrieved the picture from the waste bin, brought it over to the light, and studied it for a moment, before it burst into flames and floated away as ash. They had broken their contract, and they would not escape the consequences.