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Authors: Lesley Choyce

Hell's Hotel

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Hell's Hotel

Lesley Choyce

James Lorimer & Company Ltd., Publishers Toronto

Being Followed

“I think you're going to get yourself in a lot of trouble,” Tara said.

“I don't care,” answered Josh. “The school newspaper sucks. What we need is a real paper, something that won't back off and can't be manipulated by the school administration.”

It was ten o'clock on Friday night. Other kids were partying or hanging somewhere, having fun, but not Tara and her boyfriend, Josh. Josh had been kicked off the student paper for refusing to cover the stories the faculty advisor thought were important. That was the kind of thing that Tara admired him for. He had the guts to stand up for what he believed in, even if he had to pay the price. And now he had this, his own underground school paper.

“What are you going to write about?”

“The stuff no one else will print. The truth.”

“Truth is relative,” Tara countered, ready to start one of their long philosophic discussions.

“Forget truth, then. I'll just let my writers have the freedom to say whatever they want. Freedom of the press. Freedom to get … enraged. In fact, that's it. I'll call it
The Rage
. Let the readers figure the double meaning. Popular and outrageous. Hey, there's lots of things to be angry about.”

“Who are these writers, anyway?”

“Well, I'll probably do most of the copy for the first issue. Maybe you'll want to do a story.”

“Maybe, as long as you promise not to change it.”

Josh put his hands in the air. “No way.” He smiled. “Freedom of the press. Freedom of
The Rage
.”

“What if it's not angry? What if I want to write something upbeat?” Tara looked around at her living room. Plush, comfortable. What did she have to rage about? Maybe other kids had reasons to be angry, like her friend Jenn, who was always at war with her parents.

“Come on, Tara. You know as well as I do that we don't get a fair break. Man, kids have no rights at all.”

Josh came from a family easily as well off as Tara's. What did he have to be angry about? But he did get angry. He cared about a lot of things — issues like laboratory testing on animals, raising money to fight starvation in Africa. Maybe it was because he was sensitive. Sometimes he was gentle and kind, especially when Tara was feeling low and out of it. But he had built his rep on his attitude. Smart and angry. Not just an idiot who got into trouble for skateboarding in the halls. No, Josh was a guy who would take a stand on anything. Anything.

The phone rang. Tara was expecting a call from her parents. When they went out for a late night, her father, an administrator at Halifax's Queen Elizabeth II Hospital, would phone to see if he had any calls. Tara's mom stubbornly refused to let him carry a cell phone into a restaurant. She wouldn't even let Tara get a cell phone until she turned eighteen.

“Hello.”

“Tara,” said a breathless voice on the other end of the phone. “It's me, Jenn. I'm downtown. There's this guy ...” Tara heard a kind of shuddering on the other end of the phone.

“Jenn, calm down. What do you mean? What's going on?”

“This guy. I think he's following me.” She was scared, that was for certain, but she also sounded like she might have been drinking or was high on something.

“Where are you?”

“Grafton Street, on the corner near the Black Market.”

“Are you alone?”

“Yeah. I'm not going back home. I can't.”

Home was an on-again, off-again thing for Jenn. Her family had problems. Big problems. Tara never knew for sure how much of it was Jenn, and how much of it was her parents.

“What about the guy?”

“I don't know. I've seen him on the street before. He's been watching me.”

“Get on the bus. Come straight here.”

Josh was looking more than a little annoyed. Tara lowered her voice and turned her back to Josh who never seemed to have much sympathy for Jenn and her endless crises.

“Can't,” Jenn said. “I spent my last dollar on coffee. They had a special on cappuccino at Second Cup.”

Tara shook her head. Jenn had never been known for being practical. She was always expecting to get bailed out.

“I'm scared,” she said.

“Okay, I'm coming. Don't go anywhere. Hang around other people.”

“Nobody's around. I think they've already gone to crash at the hotel.”

“Don't go there. Stay put. We'll be right down.”

The “hotel” was short for what was known as Hell's Hotel, an abandoned building off King Street where a lot of the kids on the street would crash at night — it was a desperate place for desperate people. Jenn had slept there before.

“Hurry,” Jenn said.

Tara and Josh ran up the street to catch the bus downtown. When they reached the stop, the bus was pulling away, so Josh threw himself at the door and banged hard. The driver slammed on the brakes and let the two of them on with a look of disgust.

They jumped off the bus on King, and ran past Hell's Hotel, where they could see candlelight in the top-floor windows. As they were running towards Grafton Street, they saw Jenn sitting in the lighted doorway of The Paperchase Café. Customers had to walk around her to get in or out. Jenn's shoulder-length hair was dyed black and she was wearing a hoodie and baggy pants with skulls up the sides.

“You all right?” Josh asked.

“Yeah, thanks for coming.”

“Where's the goon?” Tara asked.

“He's inside.” She pointed to a man, maybe twenty-five years old, who was glancing out the window at them while he pretended to be looking through a magazine.

“Why didn't you just go someplace else?” Tara asked.

“I figured he'd follow. At least there are other people here.”

“Right. Okay. But now let's get out of here.”

“Not yet,” Josh said. “I think I should confront the creep.”

“Not a good idea,” Tara told him. “Let's just leave. We don't want trouble.”

At least,
Tara
didn't want trouble. Besides, the guy didn't look like he had been hassling anyone.

Josh opened the door and went in. Macho man to the rescue. Tara let go a sigh of resignation. She and Jenn followed him inside.

“What's your problem?” the guy said when Josh walked up to him and pulled the magazine out of his hand. There were three other customers in the café as well as the woman behind the counter. Everybody stopped and looked.

“I guess I could ask you the same thing.” Josh tilted his head sideways towards Jenn, who was holding on to Tara's arm.

“I don't understand,” the guy said, sounding as if he was caught completely unawares.

Josh said nothing and clenched his fists. The cashier picked up the phone.

The guy watched the cashier speaking into the receiver. “Can we go outside, if you don't mind?” he asked Josh.

“Sure,” Josh said. “Anything you want.” They walked out and the two girls followed.

“You were scaring my friend here,” Josh blurted out.

“I wasn't doing anything of the kind,” the guy said. “Look, I can explain.”

“Go ahead, then, explain just what kind of scum you are.”

“Look, kid, you got this wrong. You want the real story, give me a minute.”

Jenn started to laugh a little now — she was either frightened or high or both. Tara didn't trust anyone right now to keep a cool head. It was up to her. “Josh, let's go.”

“Not until I get an explanation.” He sounded seriously angry now, the famous Josh Donnelly rage coming to the surface again, which Tara knew would make him act like an idiot. Maybe he'd get himself beaten up, maybe he'd get all of them in trouble.

The guy was pulling something out of his pocket. Tara didn't like the look of things. What did he have? A gun, a knife?

Josh took a step back.

It was a wallet. “Take it easy,” the guy said. “Look, I work for Social Services. This is my job. I spend some time on the street to keep on top of the situation. I can't do much, but I try to keep kids from getting in really big trouble.”

Josh looked at the ID. “This is for real?”

“Yeah, for real. It's no big secret, but I do try to keep a low profile. I'm not a cop. I do what I can. Call my supervisor if you like. She'll be pretty ticked off to be woken up, but do it anyway. Look, I wasn't chasing your friend. She looks like a kid in trouble. I was just trying to keep an eye on her so she doesn't end up in worse shape.”

Josh seemed deflated, confused. Like he didn't quite know what to do with all the adrenalin he had just pumped up getting ready to go
mano a mano
with an evil creature of the night. “Kind of like Big Brother watching?” he snapped.

“Something like that.”

“Josh, let's go,” said Tara.

“I bet you only do it 'cause it has a big, fat paycheque.” Josh kept on the assault.

The guy looked down at his feet, laughed. “You figured me out,” he said mockingly.

“Look, we're sorry,” Tara said.

“The hell we are. Where does this guy get off ...”

The guy turned away from Josh and asked Tara, “She got a place to stay tonight?”

“Yeah,” Tara said. “She can stay at my house.”

Suddenly, Josh was being ignored. He certainly didn't like that, and he didn't like playing the fool, either. Before he could say anything else, Tara had tugged him away. Jenn was giggling again.

“Thanks Tara,” she said. “I knew I could depend on you to help me out.”

“What happened at home this time?” Tara asked.

“It's kind of a long story.”

Telling Stories

What had happened at Jenn's home was a long story, but it was also a familiar one. It was nearly one o'clock in the morning before Jenn got it all out of her system.

“They just don't understand me,” Jenn said for the fifth time.

Tara yawned. “And you don't understand them,” she responded.

Josh had gone home, his ego slightly bruised but his mind fired up to write about kids on the street in his new underground paper. Jenn was curled up in a sleeping bag on the floor of Tara's bedroom. Tara's parents had come home late and didn't need an explanation about Jenn.

“Your parents are so different,” Jenn said.

“They're all right,” Tara said. It was true — her parents were okay. They gave her plenty of freedom and didn't hassle her about her lifestyle. She knew that other kids thought she had it made. “But sometimes I get the feeling that they're so busy with their own lives that they don't have enough energy to really pay any attention to me.”

“What are you, crazy? I wish I was so lucky. My mom is always after me about something. Not doing well enough in school, not wearing clothes she approves of. I mean, we argue sometimes for over an hour just about what I should be eating. And my father goes nuts whenever he sees a new boyfriend. I'm fed up. I'm not going back. I need my freedom.”

“Be realistic.”

“Easy for you to say. But the truth is I'm not going back home.”

“Look, Jenn, you can stay here for a few days, but I don't think you can live here. After that, where are you gonna go, back on the street?”

“Tara, you've got a part-time job. Can I go with you to the nursing home tomorrow and see if they have an opening? If I can make some money on weekends like you, I can probably find a place to live where I can share the rent.”

Tara wanted to just blurt out that there probably wasn't a job at the nursing home and that finding a place to live with some other kids who had left home was going to be a disaster. But she couldn't bring herself to say this. Jenn was her friend and that was what mattered.

***

In the morning, Tara's mom slept in, but her dad was in the kitchen making them breakfast. Tara knew that her father was sympathetic to Jenn's situation. He didn't ask Tara anything about the previous night.

“You girls are up bright and early,” he said.

“Jenn's going to go see Mrs. Klein about a job.”

Mr. Johnson looked at Jenn. “Sounds like a fine idea. She can be a little cold sometimes. Don't let it throw you off. She's a good director. Be polite and honest. That's what people appreciate the most at a job interview.” He stirred some onions and mushrooms in a frying pan and then poured in some eggs. “You like omelette, don't you? It's my specialty.”

“Omelette's fine,” Tara said.

Tara had only got her job at the nursing home through her father's connections. She knew that Jenn didn't stand a chance of getting hired. They had a waiting list a mile long. And there just weren't enough jobs to go around in Halifax — especially for teens.

When the phone rang, Tara's dad asked Tara to finish cooking. It was probably the first of many calls he'd get that Saturday. Because of his job at QEII, he had to be consulted at all hours of the day. Yeah, he was cool, but he was always busy.

“I know you'll do just splendidly,” Mr. Johnson said as he walked out of the room. “Be confident. Talk to her like an equal. Good luck.” And then he was gone.

They ate the omelette and headed out the door. The nursing home was an easy walk, and Jenn seemed buoyed up with the enthusiasm that Tara's father had instilled in her. She thought she had the job already. “I feel like my life is finally coming together,” she said.

Tara had heard that one before. “You better wait to see if they have any openings.”

Jenn gave her a dirty look. “I'm just being optimistic. I could use a little support.”

“Sorry. I'm behind you one hundred percent. I'll give you a good build-up to Mrs. Klein.”

What Mr. Johnson had said about Mrs. Klein was an understatement. “A little cold,” wasn't exactly accurate. Tara had long ago decided the woman had been carved from a glacier.

Nonetheless, Tara gave Jenn a very proper introduction, as promised. Mrs. Klein only looked annoyed. Tara thought she could read the woman's thoughts:
Another one?
Eventually Mrs. Klein sighed and said, “I can see you, but you'll have to wait. I have a number of responsibilities first.”

So Jenn waited while Tara went off to her duties, cleaning the rooms of the old people in the nursing home — the “clients” as she was trained to call them.

For the time being, Tara felt good to be free of Jenn. She always felt responsible for keeping Jenn out of trouble. It was like having a sister, but sometimes it felt like a weight around her neck.

One of the great things about working at the nursing home was Emma. On Tara's route, Emma's room was always the third one to be cleaned. She was eighty-six years old, had long, grey hair that hung down her back, a face full of glorious wrinkles, and eyes that danced. If Jenn was the sister she never had, then Emma was the grandmother she had never had a chance to know.

“I can't believe a week has passed by that quickly,” Emma said as Tara walked into her room. The sun was shining in through the blinds, lighting up the old woman, who was brushing her hair in front of the mirror.

“It seemed like a long one to me,” Tara said.

“At any rate, I'm glad you're back. Do you have time to sit and chat?”

“Sure.” Tara could spend an hour talking to Emma. She was supposed to be cleaning the rooms, but nobody seemed to mind. Some would have called it slacking, but she'd still get her work done, breezing through the other rooms, the ones occupied by people less interesting than Emma. Emma was special.

Tara stood behind Emma and looked in the mirror at the portrait of the two of them. They could have been grandmother and granddaughter — Tara in her clean, white uniform, and Emma in her soft pink dressing gown. Tara wished it was a photograph. It looked so perfect.

Emma was smiling at her in the mirror. She smiled back. “Mirrors tell you everything, my dear. They tell you what you don't want to know, and they tell you what you need to know. And sometimes they tell you this.”

By “this” she meant simply the image of the two of them. She held up her fingers as if to make a frame of their image in the glass.

“I'm glad you're here, because I need your advice,” Emma said.

She turned around on her chair and Tara sat down on the bed opposite her. There was an open box of chocolates. Emma didn't eat chocolate. Tara didn't even have to ask. She popped one into her mouth and tasted the sweet richness of it. “Do you want the discount advice or the expensive advice?”

“This is very important. I think I'll go for the deluxe.”

“Okay.” Tara picked another chocolate from the box and popped it into her mouth. “I'm open for business.”

Tara liked the fact that Emma, certainly very wise and experienced, would ask for her help in making important decisions, and Tara could tell this was a big one.

“My son says I should sign everything over to him. He says that he received the advice from a lawyer. The lawyer said it will make things easier when I die.”

“Is that what
you
want to do?”

“I'd like to do whatever makes things easier for him.”

“I can understand that. But you said he's not very good with money.”

“Never was. But maybe he's smartened up.”

“You think?”

“Well, maybe not.”

“Why do you think he wants you to sign things over now?”

“I don't know. But if he needs the money, I should help out.”

“Then help out. Loan him what he needs. Don't sign everything over to him. You hang onto it. You're good with money. He isn't. If he can't pay you back, you only lose a little, not a lot.”

Emma smiled. “You're a good friend, Tara. I'm really impressed by how mature you are. Some people are smart, but they don't usually have good sense to go along with it. You seem to have both.”

Tara didn't know what to say.

Emma said thoughtfully, “It's important to be in control of your own life, whether you're old or young.”

“I know,” Tara said. “But it's not always easy.”

“What do you mean? Certainly you seem to know what you're doing.”

“Well, it's not me. I was just thinking about my friend Jenn.”

“Tell me about her.”

So Tara proceeded to give Emma the full picture, including the story of the night before.

“Well, it was a good thing you came to the rescue.”

“I don't know what she'd do if I wasn't around. But she's not going to go home, I know that, and she can't stay permanently at my house. It would drive me crazy. I'm going to try to convince her that getting into some kind of group home might be the way to go.”

Just then, Tara caught a glimpse of somebody in the mirror. There weren't just two faces this time, but three. And one of them wasn't looking too happy.

“Sorry to intrude,” Jenn said.

“Oh, hi,” Tara said. “How'd the interview go?”

“It was short and not so sweet. She said she wasn't hiring.” Jenn sounded not just unhappy, but angry.

“Um, Emma, this is Jenn. She —”

“I think she knows who I am,” Jenn snapped. “You just told her my life's story — your version at least.”

Suddenly Tara realized how it all would have sounded to Jenn who must have been at the door listening. “I'm sorry. I guess I shouldn't have been blabbing.”

“At least now I know how you really feel about me. You with the cool parents, the hot boyfriend, and the good grades. And me who has nothing!”

“That's not what she meant,” Emma tried to smooth over the scene.

“That's how it looks to me! And you knew she wasn't going to hire me, too, didn't you?”

“I thought it was worth a try!”

Tara suddenly realized that they were both almost shouting. Emma looked very upset, and now the figure of Mrs. Klein had appeared at the doorway. She looked straight at Tara.

“We can hear the ruckus from all the way down the hall. What are you two doing in here?”

Jenn didn't say a word. She folded her arms and looked smugly at Tara, as if pleased that she had her revenge by getting Tara in trouble.

“I'm sorry, Mrs. Klein.”

“Seems to me you've upset Emma, and we don't like to see our clients put through the wringer like this by a couple of squabbling teenagers. I also think you spend far too much time gossiping with the clients here and not enough time doing your job.”

“Now just a minute,” Emma said, coming to the defence. “Tara was not gossiping. I was the one who had asked for her help and she felt obliged to discuss a problem with me. I don't see that you have a right to criticize her for that. If anything, it was my fault.”

Mrs. Klein looked a little miffed. Nobody could get away with talking to her like that except Emma, the one patient in the nursing home who commanded respect from everyone.

“I see,” she said abruptly, but then, turning to Jenn, she concluded by saying, “but I don't believe you have a right to be snooping around here. I told you there were no jobs.”

Once again, Tara had come out unscathed. But not Jenn. She looked hurt and angry. “No problem,” she said sharply. “I can tell where I'm not wanted.” She turned and walked down the empty hallway, out into the sunlit morning.

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