Twilight on the coast always suggests the presence of a colossal beast in the slow inhale-exhale sound of the waves and the lingering humidity of the air.
Marcella felt its breath each time the automatic doors opened and closed. She had stopped looking up from the reception desk expecting to meet the source.
Her focus was on her screen, where she cycled through real estate listings in the neighborhood next door, trying to forget the soreness in her feet, the broken ice machines on floors four and six, the texts from her mother simmering in her purse.
Amenities scrambled like eggs in a pan, light in a black hole. Crowning mold and quartz countertops. She blinked to unwind them. The price barely registered before she was on to the next unattainable dream.
A hand reached into her face and snapped its blistered fingers twice.
Marcella flinched. She chided herself for failing to notice a guest had wandered into the lobby. But it wasn't a guest. Nobody but Jordan Russo could think that was a reasonable way to greet another human being.
“Good evening, Mr. Russo,” she said.
She was supposed to call the manager if Russo even stepped foot into the hotel again. But Dan was already covering for a restaurant host. And she could still feel the jab of the deputy manager pin that she put on for the first time that day.
“How can I help you?”
Russo crossed his meaty arms over his chest. The gesture tugged down his shirt, revealing a demarcation of pallid and sunburnt skin. He looked down over a pair of black sunglasses to address the young woman behind the reception counter.
“I counted six today, Marcella,” he said.
“I’m sorry to hear that."
The sound of the water features and the ambient piano music enveloped them. He seemed to expect her to continue to grovel. But Marcella only resumed a tepid expression.
"What are you going to do about it?"
Marcella fought to stop her eyes from rolling at the suggestion of her omnipotence.
"We do direct each of our guests to park only in the lot — "
"But they didn't park in the lot, Marcella, they parked on my street, where my kids play. License plates from Nevada, Utah, Texas cluttering up my neighborhood."
Russo uncrossed his arms to better wag a finger in Marcella’s face, to thrust it in the direction of the road that wound into Eastcliffe. The unsunburnt portions of his skin began to glow red with anger. He puffed. He had rehearsed.
“How many times do we have to have this conversation before your people decide to take this seriously?”
Marcella nodded. She pretended to type.
"I do understand your frustration, Mr. Russo, and when you confronted these people, they said they were hotel guests?"
"They didn't say squat," he said. And seconds too late, he realized his mistake.
Marcella heard it too. She stifled a broader and far less professional smile by glancing down at the computer again.
“But Marcella, I know they’re guests, I can tell —”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Russo, but I would suggest calling a towing company about your concerns," Marcella said over him. "Or the city."
Russo’s forehead wrinkled at the thought of another battle with his bitter enemy. Marcella drank in the victory.
He changed tactics.
"Where's Dan?" he said.
Behind him, plastic coolers landed with a crack on the marble floors — the baggage of a family who had wandered in from the elevator. The two adults now did their best acting to avoid the impression that they were staring at Marcella and Russo. Their bored children began to eye the pristine leather furniture positioned in front of the waterfall, a siren song to climb and touch.
Marcella gave them a reassuring smile.
"I'm the manager on duty at the moment,” she said to Russo. “If there's nothing else I can help you with, would you mind stepping back so I can help these guests?"
She smoothed over the syllables in her warning. Russo’s voice, on the other hand, rose in panic.
"They make you deputy manager and you're too good to have a civil conversation now?" he demanded.
Marcella sidestepped the standoff. She waved the family over to the empty computer next to hers. But they hesitated to cross paths with the rabid creature in front of them.
Russo threw his hands up in unanswered aggravation. He looked back at the family. For backup. For commiseration. But they avoided his gaze.
Their judgment was too much for him, and he turned at last to the automatic doors.
Marcella again pretended to type something into the computer to give herself a moment to breathe. The family watched Russo march righteously down the length of the lobby.
Finally deeming it safe, the husband approached the counter and set his leaking coolers and sandy backpacks in front of her. Marcella folded her shaking hands over the keyboard.
“That was just unnecessary,” he said. His wife shook her head behind him.
Their sympathetic looks weren’t comforting to Marcella, but she knew they weren’t meant to be. She was only supposed to understand that they were better people than Russo. It was important to them that she think so. Her jaw had started to hurt from her tight-lipped smile.
“How can I help you?” she said.
“We saw you have fire-pit stuff for guests. We’re hoping for four chairs and a fire pit,” he said. "Thought we’d make some s’mores tonight!"
He rubbed his hands together after the words, a slight, clean-cut figure too young for his fleece vest. Marcella thought she saw his wife wince.
“Of course, Mr. Wilkinson, but we’re expecting some rain this evening,” she said. “I wouldn’t want you to get stranded out there with all those things."
His features shifted in a way that would have been undetectable if she hadn’t seen it a thousand times before. A slight frown, a long pause and a quick sniff that signaled the camaraderie he’d offered before was over.
“Well, we read on the website that you have fire pits,” he said. His tone was intentionally flat. But just below the surface boiled a mulishness ready to ignite into open hostility.
"Maybe we could get an umbrella too," the wife added to defuse the situation.
“Of course,” Marcella said. It wasn’t worth the argument. Not after Russo.
“Give me just a second to fetch that.”
As she turned, she caught a look between the adults, half-pity and half annoyance that raised their eyebrows into their hair.
In the dim storeroom that doubled as the break room, Marcella slugged the last of the cold coffee she’d poured at the start of her shift and set to work choosing the cleanest folding chairs from the stack in the back corner. Dan’s radio played somewhere nearby. He was nowhere to be found.
The umbrellas were a loss; each broken and bent from abuse by previous guests. None would stay in their poles anymore; the Wilkinsons could find that out for themselves.
The Wilkinson children were racing through the lobby. The pent-up energy of their footsteps echoed over the marble.
“Will you need the shuttle?” she said, sweating with the exertion and the heat. “It runs every fifteen minutes, to the pier and back.”
The man shook his head and waved his hand over Marcella’s head to indicate the road that wound into Eastcliffe. She saw what was coming next and held her breath.
“We parked just down the street.”
Marcella watched them go without another word.
The phones began to ring before she could exhale. 401, 424, 681, all in a row. All in desperate need of ice.
In the storeroom, a dozen silver buckets sat on the floor, waiting to be washed. Half the kitchen staff was gone again. An irrational and misplaced rage urged Marcella to kick the row of them into the wall. Instead, she picked one up and rinsed it.
Back through the lobby and to the elevator to floor four, she heard Dan dispatching another complaint, full of ma’ams and not-to-worries and promises that the machines would be fixed soon.
“Who needs this much ice?” Marcella said. “Have they not heard about the miracle of refrigeration?”
“It’s for their feet,” Dan said, holding a hand over the mouthpiece of his phone.
Marcella pulled an exaggerated gag.
“They only want it because they know they can’t have it,” she said.
Dan held up a finger to his lips.
After hours running ice up and down the hallways, Marcella would have willingly upturned a silver bucket on herself for some relief from the sweat on her neck and the ache in her legs. The hotel’s climate control was no match for the air outside that held onto the humidity like a grudge.
She waved goodbye to Dan. He was to stay on for the night shift in an affront to all known labor laws. But he could frequently be found in the storeroom, asleep and drowning out late-night arrivals with the chatter of his radio.
Air thick with the smell of the ocean and the heat hit Marcella as she pushed through the lobby door. It was a beach-going, bar-hopping evening — ideal, she thought, for doing neither.
She checked the crossing twice, both for cars and the self-appointed Eastcliffe watch, then walked decisively past the sago palms and variegated hostas that marked the tidy border of the development.
WELCOME TO EASTCLIFFE. Eastcliffe residents and guests ONLY. NO PARKING for hotel guests. NO BEACH PARKING. Out of respect for residents, please do not trespass.
Four of these signs greeted Marcella at the Eastcliffe entrance like warnings of some ancient curse. But she plunged into the neighborhood’s darkened heart, where the fading light brushed only the high columns of the tightly packed houses, caging Marcella in.
She dodged the gaze of a couple of boys pulling surfboards from a car whose rear bumper screamed COEXIST.
She passed the Modern Craftsman placed for sale this morning with a look of longing, Russo’s carefully pruned California Cape Cod with a middle finger raised high, and a half dozen other houses in coordinating shades of slate gray and sea green until she got to a one-story kept pristine by its owner. The elderly woman didn’t mind when Marcella parked out front.
There, she unlocked the sedan — a leftover from a friend who moved cross-country — and slid the ridesharing placard out from under her seat and onto the dash. There was no time to process the day, or to reply to her mother who had now called twice — Marcella, you need to answer me. We worry about you alone in that van. Not until she pulled into the village did she stop glancing in the rearview mirror.
A steady thrum of strangers piled in and out of her car. Marcella said nothing to most of them, who ignored her in turn. She crawled through traffic on the narrow street past one low-slung bar after another, the sea waiting at the end of the road like an open mouth.
After the latest club hopper slammed the door shut, Marcella idled under the dim yellow of the streetlight, the neon pink of a bar sign, and made the phone call she had been dodging.
“Are you at work? Where are you going?”
“I can’t see you. Can you hold the phone lower?”
“You better not be staying out all night,” her mother said, taking note of the orange streaks of light across Marcella’s face. “You’re going to get wrinkles if you don’t sleep enough.”
Marcella bit down on her bottom lip to stop the argument. She asked instead, “How are you?”
The older woman sighed, her exhale heavy on the phone she held still too close to her face. She hadn’t had a day off in the last week. The chores were piling up around the house. Marcella’s father couldn’t help. But there was more to the undercurrent of her frustration — an anger at the old, crumbling house in the dried-up town she was trying to escape.
“I just wanted to tell you I’m sending some money,” Marcella said.
“No. You need to keep it —”
“It’s for the house fund.”
“—so you can get out of that van and into an apartment.”
“I like the van, Mama,” Marcella said. But her mother kept shaking her head.
“OK, I’ll send it to Daddy.”
That was enough for her mother to stop cold. Her pained expression cracked with sunlight as she began to laugh.
A light rap of knuckles on the passenger window caught Marcella’s attention. A black-suited man gestured at her to move along.
“Who is that?”
“I gotta go,” she said, and added without meaning to, “I’ll call tomorrow.”
It was past midnight before Marcella shimmied her car back into the spot she borrowed.
In the quiet that came with killing the engine, she was at last able to dispel the words of other people that rang in her head all day. She wanted nothing more than to scrub them from herself in the tin tub she’d set up outside the van.
But her body was unwilling to obey the commands to gather her things and make the trek back to the campsite. So, she sat and watched the windows fog with her breath until the streetlights blurred into distant stars; blurred further into darkness as her eyelids closed.
Metal crunched through glass outside in a sharp, tinny crash and Marcella shot upward in her seat at the sound.
She gripped the doorhandle between hooked fingers and sunk low into the seat. As seconds of silence ticked on, rational thoughts returned over the sound of her mad heartbeat. A dropped shopping bag, a thrown glass. Nothing to fear. The tension in her body began to ease.
But another great crash came from outside, so close that Marcella ducked instinctively to avoid shards of glass. There was no pause this time. It came again and again and again in a horrible staccato — three, four, five, six more times — closer, to her left, then to her right. Only when a car alarm began to blare did the sound stop.
A ragged breath caught in Marcella’s chest. She raised a shaking hand to wipe at the fog on the window.
A figure was just barely visible in the rearview mirror, blue in the semidarkness. She was sure its back was turned to her — no, its front — the shoulders domed, the head sloped. It began to walk forward on silent footsteps. Marcella dug her fingers further into the foam of the armrest.
The figure reached up high, taking aim at her car’s rear window.
She wrenched the door open in a fit of bravery and rolled out beneath it, allowing it to shield her as she crawled to the front of the car.
The attacker staggered forward into the light and Marcella confirmed her fears.
It was a wild, drunken vision of Russo, hair ungelled and matted down his forehead with sweat that ran over his reddened cheeks. He braced himself against the metal bat in his right hand from which a trail of blood dripped all the way to the car behind Marcella’s.
“I knoooow you don’t live here,” Russo said, slurred and singsong above the percussion of the car alarm.
He chuckled before his jaw clenched and his voice dropped to a growl. One heavy foot slid around the door, and Marcella knew she’d be visible in a moment.
“Can you — read — the fuck-ing signs?”
Marcella sprang up with a bottle of pepper spray pointed out and an arm covering her own nose and mouth.
Recognition widened Russo’s eyes just in time for the liquid to reach his face and twist it into a caricature of agony.
But Marcella didn’t pause to see the effects of her work. She tore down the street with hardly enough air in her lungs to breathe, let alone scream.
The lights of the hotel lobby called to her like a beacon, and Marcella cursed and stumbled through the doors where the trickle of the water and the lull of the lobby music mocked the panic clawing through her body.
The desk sat unmanned. Marcella stifled calling out for Dan fearing a guest would hear her instead. She turned to the keypad lock that could close the door and smashing the keys over and over found it unresponsive. She ran to the reception desk and reached over to the nearest panic button.
Russo’s dragging steps sounded behind her as her back was turned to the front entrance.
“I knew it,” he slurred. And advanced.
Marcella realized she was trapped, with her back against the counter and columns on either side. She reached over the bar again in a desperate attempt to swing her body to the other side. But she could only scratch at its smooth surface.
Her fingers hit something damp and cold and gritty, and she closed them around the metal of a pole.
She heard Russo’s huffing breath in her ear before she felt his hands wrap around her upper arm. But in one wrenching motion, she brought the umbrella backward. It swung out of her hands and clanged mellifluously across the man’s right ear and onto the marble floor.
He howled in rage and pain and stumbled backward holding his head. Marcella fell to her knees and began to crawl after the umbrella, reaching it just as Russo began to rise again. There was no hesitation in her swing. Or on the second. The umbrella flew out of its base and unfurled as it contacted Russo, pinning him down for good in a shower of rainwater.
He landed squarely in the entry, where his presence forced the automatic doors to open and close and open and close around him.
Marcella stood over his legs. She wielded the base of the umbrella over her head again, ready to bring it down if Russo moved. Maybe even if he didn’t.
Her breath came in high sobs. The nighttime breeze sailed in through the automatic door and cooled the wet heat she felt over her face and neck, sweat and tears. Two chirrups of a siren outside cut through the Muzak.
Her statement to the officer rambled in and out of coherency — I know I shouldn’t have parked there, but I don’t have anywhere else and he just came out of nowhere smashing car windows and he had been harassing us at the hotel for months and he chased me and I tried to lock the doors and the Wilkinsons had returned their umbrella, but it was broken, they’re all broken —
The officer offered no reaction.
Russo hadn’t moved from where he’d fallen. The officer crouched low to hear him speak and offered his arm, but the man on the ground only batted it away. The officer paced back to the entrance to mutter into his radio.
“White male, middle-aged, suffering a blunt force injury to the head. Seems conscious, but drunk and belligerent.”
His eyes briefly cut to Marcella before he spoke again. The radio crackled, but the response was indecipherable.
Marcella slumped against the marble counter. She tipped her head back and tried to lose herself in the night.
The automatic doors whooshed softly as they opened and closed. They let in the roar of the wind and the first drops of rain — or was that just the highway? — and the soft coughing and complaining from the man lying face down on the welcome mat.
The flower beds outside Eastcliffe grew thick with wild dandelion greens and signs advertising discounted wealth.
For Sale by Owner, beach-facing 3-bed, 3-bath with pool; OMNI Realty, 2,000 square-foot corner lot under $1 million. MUST SEE.
But they stayed up longer in the shadows of the break-ins and the brutal assault at the hotel next door. Moving trucks came next, then plates from new states, bringing younger families to marvel at the deal they’d snagged — these views at these prices.
The new residents installed new security systems and vowed they wouldn’t care if their streets were choked with beachgoers. Only when a slow RV steamed black smog into their backyards did they begin to doubt their investments. Only then did they peek out of their windows to see that the new owner of the California Cape Cod had painted the blue-gray garage door an insolent shade of crimson.
On her usual walk to her car, Marcella stopped to take in its boldness.
Mid-watering, the next-door neighbor stopped to wave at her, the hose hanging flaccidly to his side. She was familiar enough on the route to be mistaken for a resident.
She returned his greeting with a small wave. This he seemed to take as complicity, throwing a thumb in the direction of the California Cape Cod and pulling a disgusted face. Marcella shook her head lightly, but for different reasons.
She exited the neighborhood past the runners of ragweed spilling brazenly onto the sidewalks, so tall they might be seagrass retaking the pavement between Eastcliffe and the Current.
How fragile the concrete walls wound up being, how patient the feral things.