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Thursday, August 8, 2013

Cold Corner

Watch out what souvenirs you bring home from vacation.

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            The Elm Tree Inn in Englewood, Ohio was not the most luxurious hotel that George Redihan had ever stayed in, but neither was it the worst.  The bed was comfortable, and the food in the hotel restaurant filling if uninspired.  And, after all, he wasn't here on vacation, but for a buddy's wedding, so his lodging wasn't the prime area of concern.
            One thing became apparent quickly, though, and that was that the hotel seemed to exist in some kind of slow-motion time warp.  One morning at breakfast, he waited for forty-five minutes for eggs and bacon, the only staff on duty being one harassed-looking waitress and a single cook attempting to keep up with orders from two dozen increasingly annoyed patrons.  The housekeepers moved with a deliberateness that seemed to indicate that they were paid by the hour and not by the room.  The front desk was untenanted more often than not, and ringing the bell engendered a five-minute wait and a lazy, “Can I help you?” from the desk clerk when she finally appeared.
            Even the elevator was a creaky affair that shuddered in an alarming fashion when it started and stopped, and took minutes to arrive even though the hotel only had three floors.  George very quickly took to using the stairs instead – not that he was in a particular hurry, most of the time, but because it seemed better than standing around waiting.
            It was on his second time up the staircase at the north end of the building that he discovered the cold spot.  The staircase was clearly built for function, not beauty; it had metal railings, painted cinder block walls, and his footsteps echoed when he walked.  No one else seemed to use it, as far as he could observe.  The staff and the other residents were apparently content to wait for the creaking, shuddering elevator.
            George found the cold spot on his return from the bachelor party.  It was one o'clock, and he'd had one too many bottles of beer.  More than one, to be truthful.  In fact, it was lucky he hadn't been pulled over by the police, but his buddy's house was only two miles away and he'd been careful to stay within the speed limit and the yellow lines, insofar as his impaired state allowed.  He was staggering as he made his way up the gray-painted cement steps, which is why he stumbled on the second-floor landing and ended up in the corner.
            George gave a loud "Oof!" and backed up, coming only one step from the top stair and a probable fall backwards down to the first floor.
            What he'd run into felt like a column of cold gelatin.
            Frowning a little, he stepped forward again, and reached out his hand.  He couldn’t see anything there that could account for the sensation.  Another step forward, and then two, and his palm came into sudden contact with a resistance – it would be a mistake to call it something solid, but it pressed back against his hand as he pushed it forward.  He could, with some effort, put his hand all the way through it and out the other side, where the air felt warmer.  He looked down at his bare arm – from mid-bicep to wrist, his skin was covered with goosebumps.
            He pulled his arm out, touched his skin.  Dry, but cold.  He gave it a rub and felt the warmth reestablish itself.
            His mouth hanging open, he reached out with both hands.  The invisible, cold whatever-it-was was a little over two feet across and perhaps less than that in depth.  It didn't appear to be moving; his initial impression of its being some kind of chilly draft from an air vent was clearly incorrect.  He reached up, and found that the cold spot ended at just a little under six feet from the ground.  He felt it again, moving slowly.  It had some irregularities on its surface, but its pliability made it hard to identify what those were, or to get any real idea of its shape.
            George shook his head, and squeezed his eyes shut for a moment.
            "Too much alcohol," he said, and laughed.  And he turned and continued his stumbling way up to the third floor and his room, which he was able to enter after only four tries with his room key.  He went in, shut and locked the door, and fell onto the bed fully clothed.  He was snoring in under two minutes.

            When he went down to breakfast the next morning, he made sure to check the corner of the stairwell on the second floor.  He was surprised at how vivid the memory was, given that most of his recollection of the previous evening was buried under several layers of hangover.  He slowed his pace on the last few steps down onto the landing, not wanting to repeat last night's headlong plunge into the icy column.  He reached out a tentative hand toward the corner.
            Nothing.  There was only warm air occupying the corner of the landing.
            He frowned, and waved his hands around, like a man who had just run into a spiderweb.  His fingers contacted nothing.
            "Huh," he said, and his voice rang against the cement walls and floor.  "I must have been hallucinating.  It was the beer, after all."
            He proceeded down to breakfast, still puzzling over the whole thing.  The previous evening was hardly the first time he’d had too much beer, and never before had anything remotely like this occur to him.  But the cold corner was gone – no doubt about that – and the only likely explanation was the alcohol.  He forced himself to down three cups of coffee and a solid breakfast, knowing from past experience that it would help with the hangover, and sat in the restaurant watching the news and wondering what on earth a hallucination that vivid could mean.
            Surely not giving up drinking beer, right?
            Of course, right.
            The rehearsal that morning was to be followed by a lavish lunch at the Dayton Racquet Club, all organized by the groom's parents.  George, a groomsman, listened with minimal comprehension as the minister told everyone what their duties were.  I'll just figure it out when I'm there, he thought.  Can't be that complicated.  Escort the moms and grandmoms to their seats, lead the bridesmaids out at the end, usher the guests to the receiving line.  Sounds simple enough.  He made sure to limit the alcohol – partly because he hadn't yet completely recovered from the previous bout (and knew from hard experience that "the hair of the dog" is bullshit), and partly because he didn't want to repeat last night's experience.  Thus it was that when he returned to his hotel room at a little after three o'clock in the afternoon, intending to take a nap, that he was close to sober, if not exactly there.
            He walked up from the first floor, checking the landing on the second again (still no sign of the cold spot), and proceeded up to his room on the third floor.  He let himself in, pulled out his wallet and keys and tossed them on the table, and went to pull the curtains shut to block out the direct rays of the sun coming in the window.
            And he ran, once again, right into a column of ice-cold, this time in the corner of his own room.
            George stepped back, caught his heel on his suitcase, and fell sprawling on his ass in the middle of the room.  He sat there, panting a little, staring at the spot, which as before gave no visual clues to its existence.  He shuddered and stood up, brushing the seat of his pants with one hand, and repeated his movements of the previous night, touching the thing, pushing one hand through it, and then stepping back, his heart thrumming in his chest.
            "What the fuck?" George said.
            It hadn't been there before, he was sure of that.  The last time he'd gone into the corner of the room to use the curtain-pull had been the previous day, when he'd changed his clothes to get ready for the bachelor party, and there’d been nothing there.  He'd left the curtains shut that morning; evidently housekeeping had opened them, and there was no way to tell if they’d run into the thing.  George certainly wasn’t going to ask them about it.  But either way, whatever was occupying the corner by the window had come there since the yesterday evening.  No doubt about it.
            There was no more thought of a nap; there was something so freaky about the whole thing that he couldn't imagine sleeping in the same room with whatever this apparition was.  But what was it?  A ghost?  Didn't people say that ghosts make the room colder?  This thing seemed to have no effect on the temperature of the surroundings – it was just cold itself, like a concentrated column of chill.  And it seemed to have contours, like the folds and creases in a carved statue.  It couldn't, therefore, just be some freak air current, not that that was plausible in any case, given the fact that it seemed to move around the building at will.
            And this time, he couldn't blame it on the alcohol.  He'd had wine with lunch, but that was two hours ago.  He never felt more sober in his life.
            George stood, facing the spot where the thing stood, and suddenly had an idea.  He'd seen a pharmacy down the road from his hotel.  A five-minute drive, at most.  He grabbed his keys and wallet, and left his room, trotting down the stairs at a pace even more rapid than usual.  He paused only for a moment in the corner of the second-floor landing, just to be sure.  Still nothing.  Then he continued down to the first floor, the parking lot, and his car.

            George returned fifteen minutes later with a small plastic bag containing a small plastic bottle.  He ran back up the stairs – hoping that whatever the thing was, it was still in the corner of his room by the curtain-pull.
            What will I do if it's gone? he thought.  I won't sleep knowing that some cold thing is lurking around the place.  I'll have to switch hotels.  No way am I staying there if there's some creepy apparition wandering around the building.  Then, a more frightened-sounding mental voice added, And it’s somehow better if the thing is in my room?  Are you crazy?
            But at least then I’ll know where it is, George thought.  Always better to know than to wonder.
            He let himself into his room, shut and locked the door behind him, and set the bag down on the table.  He walked past the bed toward the window, then edged forward with caution, and reached out one hand.
            His fingertips touched a cool, pliable surface, right where they had before.
            "Ha," George said.  "Gotcha.  Let's see what you actually are."
            He opened the bag, and took out a bottle of talcum powder.  He broke the seal on it, twisted the lid, and shook some of the nearly weightless white fluff into one palm.  He then went up to the corner of the room, lifted his hand to his face, and blew at the little pile of powder.
            George gave a terrified shriek, and immediately afterwards gave thanks that he hadn't needed to pee.  Because standing in the corner, its contours outlined by a ghostly white haze of talcum powder, was the face of a woman, her eyes closed, standing completely still.
            The powder clung to the surface, just as he thought it might.  He leaned forward as close as he dared.  She had finely-cut features, and where the powder had landed in her hair, it showed as long waves, held back by some sort of band encircling her head.  The talcum powder had fallen in streaks onto her clothing, which had a carven look, like the folds in the tunic on a classical Greek statue.  George reached out and touched her arm, and felt again the chill, pliable surface, like she was fashioned of some kind of transparent gel.
            Where he touched her, and wiped off the talcum, she was completely invisible.
            George said, “Holy shit,” under his breath.  “What are you?”
            He looked at her for quite some time, pondering what to do.
            There really weren’t that many options.  He could leave, and try to find another hotel.  He could tell the management about the transparent lady in his room, and hope like hell that they could see her, too, because otherwise he’d be taking a one-way trip to the loony bin.  He could just suck it up and stay here one more night – George’s friend’s wedding was the following morning, and his flight back home later that afternoon.
            None of them were all that appealing.
            But something about seeing the actual occupant of the cold corner had made George less afraid of it.  Her face was still, and seemed to radiate peace.  There was nothing about her that was in the least threatening.  She reminded him of the statues of the Virgin Mary in George’s long-ago days as a practicing Roman Catholic.
            “Okay,” he said.  “As long as you don’t move, or start talking, or anything, I suppose you can stay there.  But even so, I don’t think I want to take a nap, actually.”
            He spent the afternoon in a Starbuck’s, went out to get some dinner at Chili’s, and with some reluctance came back to his hotel room at a little past eight.  He turned on the light, and peered into the room, torn between hoping that his translucent companion would still be there, and that she’d be gone.  Either option had its downsides.
            She was still there, standing exactly where she’d been before.  Some of the talcum powder had come off, and lay in a little white oval at her feet, leaving patches of her face invisible, but otherwise she was unchanged.
            “All right,” he said to her.  “You just stay put.  Whatever you are.  I’ll just… get ready for bed, then.”
            Normally, George slept unencumbered by any clothing at all, but that evening out of modesty he left his boxers on.  As he switched off the bedside light, he said, “Stay over there, okay?  I feel a cold hand on my shoulder in the middle of the night, I’m right the fuck out of here.”

            George’s sleep was peaceful and undisturbed, and when he woke, the light through the gaps in the curtain illuminated the cold lady, still standing where she’d been the previous evening.
            Marveling a little at the fact that he’d just spent the night in a room with a transparent statue that seemed to have the ability to move around of its own accord, he shaved and showered, and then packed up his suitcase.  “Gotta go, sorry,” he said.  “Look, you’ve been great company, but Andy’s wedding is in an hour and a half, and I’ve got to get checked out of the hotel before I go.  So, you know.  Sayonara.  It’s been real.”
            The cold woman said nothing, not that by this time he expected her to.

            The wedding went off without a hitch, the reception was quite a party, and as it wound down George went to the bride and groom and gave his congratulations and farewells.
            “Sorry to bug out,” he said.  “But I’ve got a plane to catch.”
            “No worries, man,” Andy said, shaking his hand and then thwacking him on the shoulder.  “We’re so glad you could make it.”
            “Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”
            He made his way through across the still-crowded dance floor toward the exit, and suddenly a stray thought popped into his mind.  I wonder if the invisible lady is here, watching us?  Maybe she followed me.  He gave a little shudder.  Nah, not likely, he thought.  Between the staff and the guests, if she was here, someone would have run into her.  And I didn’t hear anyone scream, so there you are.  She’s probably still standing there in my room, waiting to scare the shit out of the next occupant.
            He walked out into the bright sunshine, unknotting his tie as he went, and headed for his rental car.
            Well, good riddance to her.  Next time, if I want a statue of the Virgin Mary in my room, I’ll buy one.

            He got home late in the evening on Saturday.  One day to decompress, then it’s back to work, he thought, as he tossed his suitcase on his bed.  Well, at least they didn’t have a Sunday wedding.
            He unpacked until he got bored with it, then picked up the suitcase and its remaining contents and dropped it to the floor.  “Man, traveling is tiring,” he said, sitting down and unlacing and removing his shoes.  He tossed them into the corner of his bedroom.  One of them landed on its side, tumbled for a bit, and then fetched up, leaning…
            … against nothing.
            George stared into the corner, his heart suddenly beating a staccato rhythm against his ribcage.
            He stood up slowly, and walked across to the corner of the room.  He reached out, and nudged his shoe with one toe.  It moved, a little, but stayed in its improbable position on one edge.  He looked up from it, and saw, with increasing alarm, the faintest traces of white talcum powder, hanging in what seemed to be empty air.
            “Oh, fuck,” he said.  “You followed me home?
            George backed up until he bumped into the footboard of his bed, and then sat down.
            “What do I do now?” he said.
            There was no sound from the corner of his room.
            “Well, I know I feel better when I can see you,” he said, and went to his suitcase, which still contained the remnants of his travels.  He retrieved the little bottle of talcum powder, and repeated his actions of the previous afternoon.  Once again, the fine white dust revealed the ghostly image of a woman, eyes closed, her classically beautiful face set in an expression of deep repose.
            “This is freaking me out,” he said to her.  “What the hell are you?”
            She didn’t respond.
            “Well, I’ll be damned if I’m sleeping in here.  One night was enough.”  He grabbed a change of clothes, and his pillow, and headed for the living room sofa, shutting the door behind him.

            A quick look the next morning showed that the cold lady hadn’t moved during the night – which, he supposed, was good news.
            It was as he was drinking his morning coffee, and perusing the day’s news on his laptop, that the telephone rang.
            “Hello?” he said.
            “Mr. Redihan?” said a female voice.
            “Speaking.”
            “Mr. Redihan, this is Dorinda Harvey, manager of the Elm Tree Inn, in Englewood, Ohio.  I believe you stayed two nights with us, recently?”
            “Yes,” George said, frowning.
            “Well, Mr. Redihan, I’m sorry to put this bluntly, but… I believe you have something that belongs to us.”
            George’s heart gave an uneven little gallop.  “I… I do?”
            Dorinda Harvey laughed, but it didn’t sound like a very cheerful sound.  “Now, Mr. Redihan, let’s be honest, here.  You know perfectly well what I’m talking about, don’t you?”
            George swallowed.  “I didn’t take anything.”
            “I think you did.”
            “What is it that you… think I took?”
            Again, the mirthless laugh.  “Suffices to say that something of great value to us went missing, and it was last known to be in the room you occupied.  You checked out, and it hasn’t been seen since.  It doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Redihan.”
            “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
            There was a pause.  “I see.  I had hoped we could resolve this amicably.  Had you cooperated, I would have been prepared to accept its return, with your apology for the theft, and it would have gone no further.  Apparently, we will have to take further steps.  Good day, Mr. Redihan.”
            The line went dead.
            George set down the telephone slowly, and just sat there for some time, staring into space.
            “What the hell is going on here?” he said.

            George spent the rest of the day waiting for the police to show up, but nothing further happened.  He checked on the cold lady three times, and each time she was still standing in the corner of his bedroom, slowly shedding talcum powder onto the hardwood floor.  That evening, he decided to sleep in his own bed, reasoning that she hadn’t hurt him in the hotel room, so she wasn’t likely to hurt him here.
            Anyway, he thought, Dorinda Harvey thought she was valuable to the hotel, so she can’t be dangerous.  If she killed guests, or something, it’d be bad for business.  He paused as he tossed his pants to the floor, and gave a quick glance over to the figure that was still standing, eyes closed, in the corner.
            “Oh, well,” he said aloud.  “If you’ve been living in a hotel, you’ve seen a lot of things more shocking than this.”  He pulled off his boxers, tossed them in the hamper, climbed into bed, and was asleep within minutes.

            He said goodbye to the cold lady the next morning before he left for work, and greeted her upon his return home.  She didn’t appear to have moved in the meanwhile, but again the talcum powder was wearing off in patches, and her image was fading.  The only thing that was still clearly outlined was her face.  He considered reapplying it, but decided that he really didn’t care all that much any more.
            “Amazing how fast you can get used to something,” he thought, as he slid between the sheets that night.  “Now I understand how people can live in haunted houses.  You just kind of coexist.”  He gave a deep sigh, and closed his eyes.
            It was a little before midnight that there was noise outside.  It wasn’t loud, but it brought him to full wakefulness.  It had been a stealthy sound, only once, from outside, and not repeated.
            But not, somehow, one of the typical nocturnal noises that George had slept through hundreds of times.
            The light from a full moon was shining into his bedroom window, and its chilly light caught the traces of white powder on the cheeks of the cold lady, making her seem more ghostly than ever.  But when George looked at her, he realized one difference, which made him freeze in terror.
            Her eyes were open.
            The peaceful stillness of the face had been replaced by an intense alertness.  She no longer looked like a statue, she looked like someone very much alive, someone who was listening carefully, listening and waiting.  George was no longer reminded of the placid face of the Virgin Mary; this was no gentle Catholic saint.  This was Artemis, goddess of the moon, ready to slay anyone who crossed her.
            There was another faint sound from outside.  And like a candle flame flickering out, the cold lady was gone.  A haze of white talcum powder floated in the air for a moment, caught in the moonlight; then it settled to the floor.
            And that was when there was a sudden outcry from outside, and a horrific crashing noise, followed thereafter by only the sounds of whimpering and a faint, but prolonged, string of profanity coming from somewhere nearby.

            The police seemed skeptical of George’s story.
            “You’re saying you were just lying in bed, and there was some commotion from outside, and you had nothing to do with it,” one officer said to him.  It was three in the morning, and he didn’t seem too happy to be having to deal with this, not that George was especially glad about it himself.
            “That’s right,” George said.
            “Your neighbor called 911,” said the second officer.  “If you heard the noise, why didn’t you call?”
            “I… I was too scared,” George said.
            The first officer gave him a raised eyebrow.  “You were too scared to call the police?”
            “Yeah.  I… um, I only got out of bed when I heard the sirens.”
            “And you don’t know how one of those two guys ended up ass downward in your trash can, jammed in there so tight that it took both of us to pull him out, and the other one up in the tree in your front yard with a broken ankle?”
            “Nope,” George said.
            The two officers looked at each other.  “Well,” said the first policeman, “if you happen to remember anything else that might be helpful, you just give us a call, okay?”  He gave a quick jerk of the head toward the other officer, and they left through the front door, closing it behind them.  George watched through the front window until they drove away.
            He went back into the bedroom, where a quick check showed that the cold lady had returned to her previous spot in the corner of his bedroom.  He applied talcum powder – this time just shaking some over her head – and saw, without much surprise, that her eyes were closed again.
            “Well, I’ll be damned,” George said.

            George was unsurprised when the phone rang the next morning as he was getting ready for work.
            “You think this is funny, Mr. Redihan?” came Dorinda Harvey’s voice.  She seemed to be restraining her fury with some difficulty.
            “Actually, yes,” George said.  “I think it’s kind of hilarious, really.”
            “You need to return her.  You need to return her right now.
            “Oh, so no more nonsense about ‘returning it,’ I hear.”
            “You had better get it through your head…”
            “One of your goons ended up jammed ass downward in a trash can, and the other one got tossed up into the maple tree in my front yard,” George said.  “So, I’d say, do your worst, Ms. Harvey.  Whatever that thing is, it seems to be looking out for my best interest.  And incidentally, what exactly is it?  I’m not really clear on that.”
            There was a long pause.  “Do you have any idea how expensive it is to run a hotel, Mr. Redihan?”
            “Not a clue.  But a lot, I’d guess.”
            “You have no idea.  Besides the staff, and the food, and the utilities, and the cable and wifi hookups, there is the cost of loss and damage by irresponsible patrons.  And ones who are downright dishonest.  Hotel owners get robbed, on a daily basis, Mr. Redihan.  On a daily basis.”
            A slow smile spread across his face.  “I get it.  She was security.  She stopped people from stealing your towels.”
            “It’s fine for you to minimize it,” Dorinda Harvey said, her voice taking on a bitter edge.  “Are you a businessman, Mr. Redihan?”
            “I’m an architect.  So close enough.”
            “You should understand what I’m saying, then.  How would you like it if, at night, the maintenance crew were cleaning your office, and helped themselves to your drafting equipment?  Raided your desk?  You don’t have a little empathy?”
            “Okay,” George said.  “I guess you have a point.  But look, Ms. Harvey, you’re wrong if you think I stole her.  I wouldn’t even have known how.  I mean, you can’t just, like, check her with your baggage at the airport.  She just followed me home.”
            “Why would she do that?”  Dorinda Harvey’s voice took on a pleading tone.  “What did you do to convince her to do that?”
            “Do?” George said.  “I didn’t do anything.  She’s not exactly a good conversationalist, you know?  I just ran into her on the stairwell.  Then she showed up in my room.  Next thing I know, she’s here in my house.”
            “Can you just send her back?  Tell her to come back to the hotel.  We need her here.”
            “Maybe you should tell her.”  George stood up, and went to the bedroom with his phone in hand.  “Look, I’ll let you talk to her.”  He held the phone up to the cold lady’s ear.
            He could hear Dorinda Harvey’s voice, sounding tinny and small, saying, “Um… look, can you come back to the hotel?”
            The cold lady’s eyes snapped open, and once again, there was an alert expression, similar to what he saw last night.  Uh-oh, George thought.  Dorinda better watch what she says, or she’s gonna end up in a trash can herself.
            “I think she hears you,” George yelled, toward the phone.  “But you better be nice.  She doesn’t look too happy.”
            “Please,” came Dorinda’s voice, taking on a wheedling tone.  “We need you.  You are important to us.”
            The cold lady’s expression became, by the slightest degree, more resolute.
            “Not looking likely,” George shouted.  “Maybe she’s tired of working for free.”
            “I can’t pay,” Dorinda replied, whether to George or the cold lady, or both, wasn’t clear.  “Besides, what kind of pay would she want?”
            “I dunno,” George said.  “Maybe not money, or anything.  Maybe some vacation time.  Even a… ghost, or whatever she is, needs time off.”
            Another pause.  “Is she still listening?” came Dorinda’s voice.
            “Far as I can tell.  Her eyes are open, at least.”
            “Okay.  How about if we give you, I dunno, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s off.  And one week a year, your choice.  That’s the best I can do.  It’s what we give our restaurant manager.”
            “I think she’s interested,” George yelled.  “She doesn’t look quite as pissed off.”
            “Okay,” Dorinda said.  “And you don’t have to patrol the laundry room any more.  We’ll take our chances with the housekeeping staff.  C’mon, I can’t do better than that.”
            The voice on the other end of the phone fell silent.  Nothing happened, for almost a minute, and George found that he was holding his breath.  And then, on the cold lady’s face, there was just the slightest hint of movement – she turned her head a little toward him, and her chilly gaze met his.  The corners of the mouth turned upward, just by a millimeter.  And then, in a swirling cloud of talcum powder, she was gone.

            It was February, and George had a week’s vacation time, and he decided to splurge on a vacation with his girlfriend to Jamaica.  The resort in Montego Bay was beautiful, but they were reminded by the front desk clerk to keep their room locked, and not to carry valuables with them, especially if they left the resort grounds.
            “I hate to say it, and I don’t want to alarm you,” the clerk said, “but we want our guests to be safe.  Just take care, you know?”
            George said he’d be careful, and took his girlfriend’s hand and headed toward the front door.
            “Dammit,” he said, suddenly.  “Not off to a good start.  I left the car key in the room.  Wait here, I’ll be right back.”  He trotted off toward the staircase that led up to the second floor, and their room, and on the landing ran headlong into what felt like a pillar of ice-cold gel.
            He gave an involuntary “Oof!” and then stepped back, breathing hard.
            “You?” he said.
            There was no response from the corner of the landing.
            “Oh,” he said.  “On vacation, I suppose.”
            Silence.
            “Okay, well, I won’t blow your cover.  But do me a favor, will you?  If someone tries to rob us, give us a hand, all right?”
            There was no sound but the ocean in the distance, and the breeze blowing through the leaves of plumeria trees.
            “Nicer than Ohio, isn’t it?” he said.
            And from the corner, quiet as a whisper, came the faint sound of laughter.

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