The bracelet was embarrassingly tight. It choked the woman’s wrist as she held her hand out over the reception desk, brandishing two neatly-folded twenties. Tiny purple gemstones winked under flickering light.
Eve had seen her share of amethyst baubles from tourist traps off Highway 11-17. She considered the bracelet, then rolled her eyes toward the faltering chandelier lolling overhead in the lobby.
“Apparently they guide you,” the woman offered. “The stones.”
“Good. You need it. You’re lost.”
The woman’s eyes widened, and Eve took advantage. Grasping her hand, she flipped the woman’s palm upward, gave it a tug over the lip of the desk. Eve dragged a fingernail over the lines etched in the woman’s flesh. Heart line, head line, life line.
“So it’s true,” the woman breathed. “I’d heard—well, people on Trip Advisor. They mention you. You come highly recommended.”
Eve nodded, not lifting her gaze from the palm. She wouldn’t even have to work at this.
“My manager hates it. Karen, was it? From the Soo?”
The woman drew a quick breath. “How did you know that?”
“I was the one who took your reservation.”
“Relax,” Eve honeyed her voice, dangling it leisurely over Karen’s open hand. Her palm had a whiff of latex; fingernails cut short. Eve ran with it. “Career woman. Health care, from the look of it.”
“Gynecologist,” Eve said. She knew there was a conference in town, recalled picketers. “Abortions?”
“You can see that?”
“Sure. You had an unsafe one, probably in your twenties. And you never wanted anybody to go through what you did.”
Karen recoiled, drawing her wrist back with snap. She cradled her palm as though she’d been struck.
Eve leveled an impassive gaze at her customer, cracking her gum. “No judgment,” she said.
But Karen was startled now, sweeping wide eyes around the lobby of the once-grand hotel as though unaware of how she’d gotten there. She took in the dull, bronzed lions flanking the desk, worn velvet armchairs languishing in dim corners. Threadbare carpet lined the staircase.
Eve cringed a little, willing Karen not to look too far up. The chandelier’s remaining bulbs cast dull light over grubby ceiling murals. They exposed flaking gold paint on the banister, shedding like a serpent up the staircase and across the second floor balcony. She felt hot shame on behalf of the building, as if it were an ailing grandparent. The hotel was a curious, crumbling asylum. Eve was its resident night auditor, counting receipts and offering extra towels.
The elevator pinged open. The two women watched a paunchy, balding man empty the ATM of its twenties. Sweat rolled off his temples as he stuffed bills into his pocket. He cast furtive glances around the lobby, refusing to meet their stare. When the machine stopped whirring, he bolted for the stairs.
“I’m going to go back upstairs,” Karen stuttered. “Thank you for your time.”
It started that night in February when her friend Katie visited. They Googled palm reading. A guest approached the desk to ask about adjusting the thermostat in her room. Saw Eve cradling Katie’s palm. The fingers splayed wide, vulnerable, with chipped black nail polish.
“How much do you charge?” the woman breathed.
“Forty,” Eve said.
It developed a life of its own. She only read for strangers. One hundred and twenty-six tree planters tumbled into the hotel in July on their weekend off. They reeked of booze and body odor, unwashed for weeks. Denim cutoffs, tank tops whose armpits were ringed with sweat stains. They draped themselves over the balcony, dangled red plastic cups from grubby hands. Made out in corners of the lobby. The earthy, sexual smell of them. A girl with dreadlocks and a nose ring approached Eve, pupils dilated and raw with dope.
“My friend’s mom says you read her palm,” she whispered.
There was a lineup twenty deep behind her within minutes.
Eve doesn’t read palms; she reads people. Years of customer service does that to you. People’s desires have a reassuring, predictable cadence. Relationships, money, health. The holy trinity.
You’re lost, she’d say. And they’d cave.
She thought of herself as Lucy rattling a tin can at Charlie Brown. Psychiatric help, five cents.
People are emboldened by anonymity. They’re desperate to be understood. They want it so badly that they’re ready to be whomever Eve tells them they are.
Karen, for instance. She didn’t stick around for the rest of her reading, but Eve had her pegged. Karen wasn’t wearing a wedding ring, but her fingers were swollen and it had left a mark. Eve figured she wears it when treating mothers and attending conferences. Leaves it off during procedures on young women and trips to hotel bars while travelling.
I see high-backed leather office chairs. Faux-mahogany desks, fountain pens with imposing weight but cheap, breakable ink fills. It isn’t a comfortable look on you. You’ve never fully identified with it. There’s a timidity unbecoming of your position, lingering self-doubt maligned by glass ceiling shatterers and self-help authors.
You unexpectedly found yourself a thirty-something stepmother, wearing the word rather than uttering it aloud. Twenty extra pounds. Less makeup than before. Hair that’s four months uncoloured. You offer to buy your assistant lunch, cover the cheque with your hand. She’ll feel obligated to ask how things are at home. She shrinks in her chair to accommodate you.
Hanging alongside your certificates and degrees are portraits of you grabbing a bull moose by the antlers. You’ll insist it was a clean shot. If you do not hang every last achievement, you fear people won’t believe you. You are a firm believer in light, effective reminders.
You coat the blade with honey.
The elevator door opened and Eve half expected to see Karen again. Instead, the ATM man rushed toward the back door. Eve tilted her head and considered his retreating figure in the security camera television. He fumbled with his keys outside a Dodge minivan. She could hear his brakes squealing as he peeled out of the parking lot.
Sifting through receipts, Eve didn’t look up as Portia descended in a languid waltz down the stairs to the hallway behind the desk. Eve heard her thrust her hip into the side of a vending machine. The soft thud of a bag loosened from its depths. She shimmied up to the desk, heaving her bosom onto the counter. Glitter drifted down from her bathrobe onto Eve’s paperwork.
“You’re bleeding our machine again, Portia.”
“What can I say. I’m worth every penny.”
She opened the bag with a small pop, jarring in the still of the lobby. Digging out some Cheezies, she chewed for a minute or two. Then she leaned in, opened her palm and fluttered her fingertips at Eve. They were coated in orange dust.
“I hear you’re a reader,” she said.
“Want yours done?”
“No. Wanted to see if you’d sell it.”
“Don’t need to. It sells itself.”
Portia withdrew her hand and licked the dust from her fingers. “Our business has this in common.”
“Revelation. Nakedness. Exposure. Call it what you want.”
Eve tilted back in her chair and thrust her feet up on the desk. She folded her arms across her chest. Behind her, the hands of a cheap wall clock chugged forward. The ice machine belched a fresh tray of cubes. She closed her eyes, shook her head.
“Why all this pretense,” she asked, “only to beg a stranger to strip it away?”
“Oh, honey.” Portia cocked an eyebrow and drummed her fingers on the countertop. “You’re young. Too young to know how dangerous that feels for some people.”
“That counter hasn’t been wiped down in weeks,” Eve said. “I wouldn’t lick my fingers again, if I were you.”
“Why do it then? If you’re sick of the bullshit.”
Eve snorted. “My psych degree put me thirty grand in the red. Underemployment forces me to side hustle. I’m a cynical asshole. Take your pick. I’m a fucking cliche. Lucky for me, so is everyone else.”
“I wish someone would call me on it,” Eve said. “I want someone to say to me, just once—No, that isn’t it. You’ve got it all wrong. You don’t know how much I want to be wrong.”
It almost happened, once.
One of the tree planters was a girl close to Eve’s age. She had hazel eyes, a mess of curly auburn hair. Eve could see dirt crusted in the crevices of her ears, spattered like freckles across her cheekbones. A large black and white tattoo of an owl with sage eyes staring up from the inside of the girl’s forearm. The muscles she’d developed from months of hauling conifers, shovelling in gruelling heat. Proud, sharp jawline, tilted upward. Defiant, skeptical.
“I worked goddamned hard for this forty,” she said. “You get it if you can tell me something I don’t already know.”
Eve flushed under the girl’s unblinking gaze. She did something she never had before: she stood to do the reading. Without breaking eye contact, Eve caressed the girl’s outstretched palm, clasping the chapped skin with both hands. The girl stiffened slightly, but didn’t withdraw.
The girl snorted.
“You came north to escape an ex. Ditched his shit on the curb, and the last year of your degree. You got drunk one night. Somebody suggested tree planting. You had expectations of adventure. He accused you of being high maintenance. You wanted to prove him wrong. This was the farthest you could go without leaving the province.”
The girl’s nose twitched, but she said nothing.
“You hate tree planting. You hate being sunburned, drinking piss-warm Molson, smelling like campfire.” Eve dragged her fingernail down the weathered heart line. “But you’re looking for something.”
The girl rolled her eyes. “Like what?”
Eve sighed. “There’s this thing people have with the north. They exile themselves expecting to stumble onto authenticity. Sorry to say, but you won’t find it here.”
“Bullshit,” the girl said, narrowing her eyes.
Eve’s heartbeat quickened.
The girl leaned over the desk and planted her whiskey-soaked lips on Eve’s mouth. Her tongue darted over Eve’s teeth just once. Then she pulled away.
“My ex wasn’t a he.”
“My mistake.” Eve smiled. “Keep your money.”
Eve didn’t count on Leo for security. For a night watchman, he wasn’t especially imposing. He was in some nebulous realm of elderly, pushing sixty-five or ninety. Stained uniform, grey hair slicked with pomade. He’d show up at midnight, park himself in an armchair with a tattered paperback, and ignore Eve. His spine performed a slow-motion collapse as the shift wore on; she could tell what time it was by the angle of his hunch.
The tree-planters hotboxed bathrooms and set off fire alarms, sending Leo zig-zagging all over the building. They responded with languid howls when he pounded on their doors. Some guests complained about the smell, asked Eve to phone the cops. Others resigned themselves. Eve got lots of calls for extra towels. White terrycloth tails peeked along the bottoms of doors for the whole weekend. There wasn’t much to soundproof against dull thump of headboards against bedroom walls.
While delivering towels on the second floor, Eve passed three male tree-planters. They reeked of whiskey and dope. Self-conscious of her gait, she willed her footfalls to soften. Their voices curdled at her back like the arms of a squid.
“That’s the chick who made out with Ella.”
“Yeah, Josh saw.”
“Hey? Hey you—come party.”
“We’ll be gentle.”
They laughed. Eve’s tongue thickened with unspoken retort. Fine hairs on the nape of her neck prickled. She kept her eyes trained on the exit sign blazing at the end of the hall.
It was soft, at first. Hard to hear over the ventilation system belching chilly conditioned air. So soft she might mistake it for the distant chorus of a busted clock, filling the hall with demented song. Eve tilted her head to catch the up-down, up-down rhythm.
Cuc-koo, it went. A slow, leisurely whistle. Cuc-kooooooo.
Eve’s breath froze in her chest. Plowing past the room, she clutched the towels to her chest and bolted for the staircase. As she burst through the door, the whistle gave way to low chuckles.
Two weeks after, Eve told Portia about the whistle. Portia’s hip maneuver had yielded Skittles from the vending machine that evening. Ignoring Eve’s warnings about the counter’s cleanliness, Portia dumped the package and arranged the candies by colour. She left the lemons and limes for Eve.
“I’m had chills,” Eve muttered. “I mean, I know it’s just a whistle—”
“Honey,” Portia interrupted. “Do not undermine yourself.”
Eve flushed with embarrassment. After a moment, she asked how Portia protected herself.
“What, you mean the Crypt Keeper isn’t cuttin’ it?” she asked, jerking a thumb over her shoulder. She raised her voice abruptly, letting it ring out across the lobby. “Leo baby, where you been at?” Laughing, Portia leaned in, wagging her finely-manicured index finger. “Take it on good authority—chivalry’s six feet under.”
Eve arched an eyebrow. “I don’t understand. What are you trying to say?”
“You read people right?” Portia sighed. “Use that. Use your gut. If something’s off, it’s off.”
“How do you protect yourself after that?”
“Knives,” Portia said. In one fluid motion, she whipped one from her robe and drove it into the countertop. “Three of ‘em. Purse, pillowcase, garter. But you do you.”
Karen stumbled across the lobby, giggling. Her heels were like gunshots on the tile. Hung off the arm of a suit-and-tie. The man was familiar. Eve had seen him haunt the hotel lounge before.
“And this! This lady right here,” Karen said with a flourish, windmilling her arms like Vanna White, presenting Eve. “She’s a palm reader to the stars.”
The suit tugged her toward elevator. His fingers fluttered like tentacles, groping her lower back. Karen loped toward the desk. He followed reluctantly, hands shoved into his pockets.
“Eve,” Karen slurred, fishing around in her purse. “Read his palm.” She slapped crumpled bills onto the counter, then nodded to him.
He rocked back and forth on his heels. Irritated, not budging.
“C’mon. It’s not gonna hurt.”
Rolling his eyes, he thrust a meaty hand toward Eve. His palm perspired slightly. Eve realized she’d only ever read women’s hands before. She’d taken them for granted. The conspicuous lack of hair, slender fingers. She stared down at his palm, folding her arms.
“C’mon, darling,” Karen said. “Doc’s orders. I’ve paid. Tell him who he is.”
Eve balked; it wouldn’t work. She’d be telling him what he already knew. He’s not lost. He’s perfectly confident in who he is. Most people are emboldened by anonymity, but he’s not. He doesn’t want to be known. Not really. It made what came next easier.
But Eve would have said:
I see high-backed leather office chairs. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows with remote-controlled blinds. Nobody knows what you do behind them. You picture young associates in pencil skirts sashaying to the copier. Crank BNN to cover the fact that you masturbate under your desk while TSX updates roll by on the ticker.
You grew up poor, which taught you to hustle but kept you cheap. Your suits are genuine Armani, but your Patek Philippe is a knock off bought in Hong Kong. You told your wife you were going there for business; you went for your Asian fetish. She bought it not because she’s foolish but because she wants to ignore the fact that you are failing at what you do. She hasn’t fucked you since the office Christmas party, when you made jokes at her expense around a mouthful of cigar.
Nobody knows you come to the lounge every time there’s a conference. You hit on travelling professional women. Nobody knows you drag your wounded ego to Portia after you’ve struck out. Nobody knows how many times they’ve called the cops on sexual assault charges.
Nobody, that is, except me.
Eve did not have a knife, but she could coat the blade with honey. So she leaned forward. Spit in his palm. Wiped the back of her mouth with her sleeve. And smiled.
“Get lost,” she said.
Red-faced and cursing, he slapped his palm on the counter and dragged it across. A gossamer trail of her saliva glistened under the light of the chandeliers overhead. Fighting with the rotating glass door, he stomped into the night.
“What the fuck?” Karen whirled, fuming. “Who do you think you are?”
“Trust me,” Eve said. “I wish I were wrong. You don’t know how badly I wish I were wrong.”
Kirsti Salmi is an emerging writer hailing from Thunder Bay, Ontario. She holds her HBA and MA in English from Lakehead University, and has studied creative writing at Memorial University and Humber College. She is a writer and copy editor for The Walleye Magazine, and is currently completing her first short story collection, Shag Tickets & Other Debris with grateful acknowledgment of funding support from the Ontario Arts Council for this project.