Authors: Nita Prose
Here came the tricky part, the part I’d never discussed with anyone, not even Charlotte. But I’d prepared myself for this moment. I’d practiced night after night, in between counting blessings and sheep.
I steadied my gaze and my voice. I concentrated my mind on the pleasant sound of my own blood. I could hear it in my ears, the rushing flow, in and out, rolling waves on a faraway beach.
What’s right is right. What’s done is done.
“I wasn’t alone. In the room,” I said. “I thought I was at first, but I wasn’t.”
Charlotte swiveled on her heel and turned my way.
“Molly?” she said. “What are you talking about?”
I swallowed, then spoke. “After I called down to Reception for help the first time, I put the receiver down. Then I turned toward the bedroom door. And that’s when I saw it.”
“Molly, I want you to think very carefully before you speak,” Charlotte calmly advised, though her eyes were wide with alarm. “I’m going to ask you a question, and you’re to tell the absolute truth. What did you see?” Her head tilted to one side as if nothing made sense.
“There was a mirror on the far wall in front of me.”
I paused and waited for Charlotte to catch up. It didn’t take her long.
“A mirror,” she said. “And what was reflected in it?”
“First, myself, my terrified face staring back at me. Then behind me, to my left, in the shadowy corner by Giselle’s armoire was…a person.”
My eyes locked with Charlotte’s. It was as though her mind were an intricate machine, reading me, deliberating on how to proceed.
“And…was this person holding anything?” she asked.
Murmurs traveled through the crowded courtroom. The judge called for order.
“Molly, is the person you saw standing in that dark corner present in this courtroom today?”
“I’m afraid I would not be comfortable saying,” I said.
“Because you don’t know?”
“Because at that precise moment, when I turned from the mirror to
get a direct look at the figure in the dark corner, I fainted. And when I woke up, the person wasn’t there anymore.”
Charlotte nodded slowly. She took her time. “Of course,” she said. “You have a history of fainting spells, don’t you, Molly? Detective Stark testified that you fainted once at your front door upon arrest and once at the station, is that correct?”
“Yes. I faint when under extreme duress. And I most certainly was under extreme duress upon wrongful arrest. I was also under extreme duress when I looked into that mirror and realized I wasn’t alone in that hotel room.”
Charlotte began to pace in front of the stand. She stopped directly in front of me. “What happened when you came to?” she asked.
“When I regained consciousness, I called Reception for the second time. But there was no one in the room at that point. Just me. Well, me and the corpse of Mr. Black,” I said.
“Is it possible, Molly—I’m not saying it
—but is it possible that the person in that dark corner was Rodney Stiles?”
Rodney’s lawyer jumped to his feet. “Objection. Leading the witness,” he said.
“Sustained,” the judge replied. “Counsel, do you wish to rephrase your question?”
Charlotte paused for a moment, though I doubt it was because she was thinking. I took that time to study Rodney. His lawyer was leaning forward, whispering something in his ear. I wondered what I was being called this time, not that it mattered. Rodney was wearing what appeared to be a very expensive suit. I used to think he was so handsome, but as I looked at him in that moment, I couldn’t imagine what I’d ever seen in him.
After a long interval, Charlotte finally said, “No further questions, Your Honor.” She turned to me. “Thank you, Molly,” she said.
For a moment I thought it was over, but then I remembered we were only halfway through. Rodney’s lawyer sauntered toward me, stopping right in front of me and staring me down. It did little to unnerve me. I’m used to such looks. The world had prepared me well.
I can’t recall every word that was said, but I do remember treading the same old ground, telling the same story the same way every time I was asked. I didn’t trip up even once because it’s easy to tell the truth when you know what it is and what it isn’t, and when you’ve drawn your own line in the sand. There was just one moment during cross-examination when Rodney’s lawyer drilled into me with particular vigor.
“Molly, there’s something I still don’t understand about your story. You were brought to the police station several times. You were given ample opportunity to tell Detective Stark about the figure in the corner of the hotel suite that day. Doing so might have even exonerated you. And yet, time after time, you never mentioned seeing someone in that room. You never said a word about that. And if your lawyer’s behavior means anything, it sure seems like she didn’t know until today either. Now, why is that, Molly? Is that because no one was actually there? Is it because you’re protecting someone else, or is it because when you looked in that mirror, all you saw was your own guilty face reflected back at you?”
“Objection. Badgering. Of the very worst kind,” Charlotte said.
“Sustained, minus the last bit,” said the judge.
The whispers fluttered through the courtroom.
“I’ll rephrase my question,” Rodney’s lawyer said. “Did you
to Detective Stark when you first told her about what you saw in that hotel room?”
“I did not lie,” I say. “On the contrary. You’ve all read the transcripts. Perhaps you’ve even watched the video of my testimony on the very first day I was interrogated at that filthy police station. One of the first things I said to Detective Stark, in no uncertain terms, was that when I announced my arrival in the suite, I thought someone was there with me. I asked her specifically to write that detail down.”
“But the detective obviously assumed you meant Mr. Black.”
“And that’s why assumptions are dangerous,” I said.
“Ah,” he replied as he paced back and forth in front of the stand. “So
you omitted the whole truth. You refused to clarify. That, too, is a lie, Molly.” He eyed the judge, who tilted her chin down ever so slightly. I thought that maybe Charlotte would intervene, but she didn’t. She was still and quiet at her bench.
“And can you please enlighten us, Molly, as to why you failed—countless times—to clarify to investigators your claim that ‘someone else was in the room’ and that this person was holding a pillow?”
“Because I was…”
“Was what, Molly? You strike me as someone rarely at a loss for words, so have out with it. This is your chance.”
“I wasn’t one hundred percent sure what it was I’d seen. I’ve learned to doubt myself and my perceptions of the world around me. I do realize I’m different, you know, different from most. What I perceive isn’t what you perceive. Plus, people don’t always listen to me. I’m often afraid I won’t be believed, that my thoughts will be discounted. I’m just a maid, a nobody. And what I saw in that moment, it felt like a dream, but I know now that it was real. Someone with a deep motive killed Mr. Black. And that wasn’t me,” I said. I looked at Rodney then, and he looked at me. There was a look on his face that was entirely new. It was as though, for the very first time, he was seeing me for who I really am.
The courtroom erupted and the judge called for order once more. I was asked several other questions, which I answered, clearly and politely. But I knew nothing else I said would matter. I knew this because I could see Charlotte on the bench. And she was smiling, a smile that was new for me, one that I would add to the catalog in my mind, filed under
for “awe.” I’d surprised her, shocked her completely, but I had not made a total mess of things. Everything was going our way. That’s what her smile said.
And she was right. Things did go our way.
As I think back on it now, on everything that happened in that courtroom yesterday, I can’t help but smile myself.
I snap out of my recollections when I see Sunitha and Sunshine heading toward me. They’ve just arrived for the start of our shift.
They’re perfectly dressed in their uniforms, their hair neatly pinned back. They stand in front of me silently, which is quite usual for Sunitha and most unusual for Sunshine.
“Good morning, ladies,” I say. “I hope you’re looking forward to another day of returning rooms to a state of perfection.”
They still say nothing. Finally, Sunshine speaks. “Just go on. Tell her!”
Sunitha takes a step forward. “I wanted to say: you caught the snake. The grass is clean now, thank you.”
I don’t exactly know what she’s trying to say, but I can tell she’s paying me a compliment.
“We all want a clean hotel, do we not?”
“Oh yes,” she says. “Clean means green!”
This pleases me immensely because she’s quoting something I said in a recent maid training session
. If we work to make things clean, we’ll make a lot of green.
By green, I meant money—tips, bills. I thought that was quite clever, and I’m pleased she remembered.
“Big tips today and big tips in the future!” she says.
“Which is good for us all,” I say. “Shall we?”
And without further delay, we get behind our trolleys and push onward.
But just as we make it to the elevators, my phone buzzes in my pocket.
The elevator doors open. “You two go ahead. I’ll take the next one up,” I say.
Off they go together, which gives me a moment to check my phone. It’s probably Juan Manuel. He often sends text messages throughout the day, little things to make me smile—a picture of us eating ice cream at the park, or an update about his family back home.
But it’s not Juan Manuel. It’s an email from my bank. Instantly, I feel my stomach sink. I can’t bear the thought of bad financial news. I open it and read the message:
SANDY CAYMAN has sent you $10,000 (U.S.) and the money has been automatically deposited into your account.
And under “Special message,” three words: Debt of Gratitude.
At first, I think it must be a mistake. But then it dawns on me. Sandy Cayman. Sandy beaches. The Cayman Islands.
Giselle sent me a gift. And that’s where she is—on her favorite island in the villa that she wanted so badly, a villa she asked Mr. Black to put in her name hours before his death. Mr. Black relented. He gave in. That was revealed in court by Rodney’s defense team. When he left the suite on the last day of his life, after throwing his wedding ring at Giselle, he had a change of heart. He grabbed the deed for the villa in the Caymans out of the safe. I happened to see it in his breast pocket when he nearly bowled me over in the hallway. Despite the argument with Giselle, he went directly to his lawyers and had them put the villa in Giselle’s name. That was the last bit of business he conducted before returning to the hotel. It explained a lot….
I imagined Giselle on a lounge chair in the sun, finally getting what she always wanted, just not the way she expected. Somehow, she had money now, too, even if it wasn’t Mr. Black’s—money to make amends.
She’d sent me a gift. An enormous, Fabergé-enhancing gift.
A gift I wouldn’t know how to give back even if I wanted to.
A gift that I intended to put to very good use.
Gran always said that the truth is subjective, which is something I failed to comprehend until my own life experience proved her wisdom. Now I understand. My truth is not the same as yours because we don’t experience life in the same way.
We are all the same in different ways.
This more flexible notion of truth is something I can live with—more than that, it’s something that gives me great comfort these days.
I am learning to be less literal, less absolute about most things. The world is a better place seen through a prism of colors rather than merely in black and white. In this new world, there is room for versions and variations, for shades of gray.
The version of the truth I told on the stand on my day in court is exactly that—a version of my experiences and memories on the day that I found Mr. Black dead in his bed. My truth highlights and prioritizes my lens on the world; it focuses on what I see best and obscures what I fail to understand—or what I choose not to examine too closely.
Justice is like truth—it, too, is subjective. So many of those who deserve to be punished never receive their just deserts, and in the meantime, good people, decent people, are charged with the wrong crimes. It’s a flawed system—justice—a dirty, messy, imperfect system. But if
the good people accept personal responsibility for exacting justice, would we not have a better chance of cleaning the entire world, of holding the liars, the cheaters, the users, and the abusers to account?
I do not share my views on this subject widely. Who would care? After all, I’m just a maid.
On my day in court, I told those gathered about the day I found Mr. Black dead in his bed. I told it how I saw it, how I lived it, only I cut the story short. Yes, I did check Mr. Black’s neck for a pulse only to find none. I did call down to Reception asking for help. I did turn to the bedroom door and catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Only then did I realize I was not alone in the room. There was in fact a figure standing in the corner. A dark shadow fell across the person’s face, but I could see their hands clearly, and a pillow, clutched close to their heart. This figure reminded me so much of myself, and of Gran. It was as if I was seeing myself reflected twice in the mirror. That’s when I fainted.
The story continues after that. Much like an episode of
: there’s always something more that wasn’t seen before.
It wasn’t a man, the figure in the corner.
When I awoke, I found myself on the floor beside the bed. Someone was fanning my face with hotel stationery. After a few deep breaths, my vision sharpened. It was a woman. She was middle-aged, with salt-and-pepper hair held back by the sunglasses propped on her head. Her hair was cut neatly into a bob, styled straight, much like my own. She was wearing a loose-fitting white blouse and dark pants. She was crouched over me, a worried look on her face. I didn’t recognize her face, not at first.
“Are you all right?” she asked as she stopped her fanning.
My first instinct was to reach for the phone again.
“Please,” she said. “You don’t need to do that.”
I brought myself to a seated position, pushing my back against the bedside table. She took two steps backward, giving me space, but she kept her eyes on me.
“I’m terribly sorry,” I said. “I didn’t realize there was another guest in the room. But I must—”
“You must nothing. Please. Hear me out before you touch the phone.”
She did not sound angry or even tense. She was merely offering a suggestion.
I did as I was told.
“Would you like a glass of water?” she asked. “And maybe something sweet?”
I wasn’t ready to stand. I didn’t trust my legs. “Yes,” I said. “That would be most kind.”
She nodded once and left the room. I could hear her rummaging around in the sitting room. Then I heard the rush of water from the bathroom tap.
A moment later, she was back in the bedroom, crouching in front of me. She passed me a glass of water, which I took in my shaky hands and drank greedily.
“Here,” she said once I’d finished, “I found this in your cleaning cart.”
It was a chocolate, for turn-down services. Strictly speaking, it was not mine to eat, but this was an extraordinary circumstance and she’d already opened the wrapper.
“You’ll feel better,” she said.
She passed me the square of chocolate, put it right into the palm of my hand.
“Thank you,” I replied. I placed the whole square on my tongue. It dissolved instantly, the sugar working its magic.
She waited a moment, then asked, “Can I help you?” She reached out her hand.
I put my unsteady hand in hers and with her assistance, I was soon standing beside her. The room came into sharper focus. The ground was solid beneath my feet.
We stood there beside the bed, looking at each other for a moment, neither of us daring to look away.
“We don’t have much time,” she said. “Do you know who I am?”
I studied her more closely. She looked vaguely familiar, but she also looked like every other middle-aged female guest who frequented the hotel.
“My apologies, I’m afraid…”
And that’s when it hit me. From the newspapers. From our one brief encounter in the elevator. It was Mrs. Black. Not the second Mrs. Black, Giselle, but the first Mrs. Black, the original wife.
“Ah,” she said as she neatly tucked the chocolate wrapper into her pants pocket. “Recognition dawns.”
“Mrs. Black, I’m terribly sorry to intrude, but I do believe that your former husband…I believe Mr. Black is dead.”
She nodded slowly. “My ex-husband was a cheater and a thief and an abuser and a criminal.”
I started to put it together then, only then. “Mrs. Black,” I asked. “Did you…did you kill Mr. Black?”
“I suppose that depends on your point of view,” she said. “I believe he killed himself, slowly, over time, that he became infected by his own greed, that he robbed his children and me of a normal life, that he modeled corruption and evil in just about every way a man can. My two sons are his clones, and they’re now drug-addled slobs who flit from party to party, spending their father’s money. And my daughter, Victoria, all she wants is to clean up the family business, to run it with some decency, but her own father wants to disown her. He wouldn’t have stopped until Victoria and I were both destitute. And he did this even though she’s a forty-nine-percent shareholder. Well, she
a forty-nine-percent shareholder. She’ll be more than that now….”
She looked at Mr. Black, dead on the bed, then back at me.
“I came only to talk to him, to ask him to give Victoria a chance. But when he let me in, he was drunk, popping pills, slurring his words, muttering about Giselle being a gold-digging bitch, just like me, how we’re both good-for-nothing bimbo wives, the two biggest mistakes of his life. He was obnoxious and a bully. In other words, he was his usual self.”
“He grabbed me by the wrists. I’ll have bruises.”
“Just like Giselle,” I said.
“Yes. Just like the new and improved Mrs. Black. I tried to warn her. Giselle. But she didn’t listen. Too young to know any better.”
“He beats her too,” I said.
“Not anymore,” she replied. “He would have done worse to me, but he started to heave and pant. He let go of my wrists. Then he stumbled to the bed, kicked off his shoes and lay down, just like that.”
Her eyes darted to the pillow on the floor, then away. “Tell me,” she said. “Do you ever feel like the world is backward? Like the villains prosper and the good suffer?”
It was as though she were reading my deepest thoughts. My mind flitted through a short list of those who had taken from me unjustly and had caused me to suffer—Cheryl, Wilbur…and a man I’d never met, my own father.
“Yes,” I said. “I feel that way all the time.”
“Me too,” she replied. “In my experience, there are times when a good person must do something that’s not quite right, but it’s still the right thing to do.”
Yes, she was right.
“What if it were different this time?” she asked. “What if we took matters into our own hands and balanced the scales? What if you didn’t see me? What if I just walked out of the hotel and never looked back?”
“You’d be recognized, would you not?”
“If people actually read the newspapers delivered to their doors, but I doubt they do. I’m largely invisible. Just another gray-haired, middle-aged woman in loose-fitting clothes and sunglasses walking out the back door of the Regency Grand. Just another nobody.”
Invisible in plain sight, just like me.
“What did you touch?” I asked her.
“When you entered the suite, what did you touch?”
“Oh…I touched the doorknob and probably the door itself. I think I laid a hand on the bureau by the door. I didn’t sit down. I couldn’t. He was chasing me around the room, yelling and spitting in my face. He
grabbed my wrists, so I don’t think I ever actually touched him. I took that pillow off the bed and…That’s it, I believe.”
We were both silent for a moment, staring at the pillow on the floor. I thought again of Gran. I didn’t understand her back then, not entirely, but during that moment with Mrs. Black, I suddenly saw it clearly—how mercy takes unexpected forms.
I looked up at her, this virtual stranger who was so much like me.
“They’re not coming,” she said. “Whoever you called earlier.”
“No, they won’t. They don’t listen well. Not to me. I’ll have to call again.”
“No, not yet.”
I didn’t know what else to say. My feet turned to stone as they do when I’m nervous. “You best be going,” I eventually said. “Please don’t let me delay you.” I offered a slight curtsy.
“And what will you do? When I’m gone?”
“I’ll do what I always do. I’ll clean everything up. I’ll take away my water glass. I’ll wipe down the front doorknob and the bureau. I’ll polish the faucet in the bathroom. I’ll put that pillow on the floor in my laundry hamper. It will be cleaned in the basement and returned to another room in a state of perfection. No one will ever know it was here.”
“Just like me?”
“Yes,” I said. “And after I’ve returned those few areas of the suite to a state of perfection, I’ll call Reception again and reiterate my urgent request for help.”
“You never saw me,” she said.
“And you never saw me,” I replied.
She left then. She simply walked out of the bedroom and out the front door of the suite. I didn’t move until I heard the front door click behind her.
That was the last time I saw Mrs. Black, the first Mrs. Black. Or didn’t see her. So much depends on your point of view.
Once she was gone, I cleaned things up as I said I would. I put the pillow she left behind into the laundry hamper in my trolley. I called
down to Reception, for the second time, once I fully regained consciousness, just like I said in court. And at long last, a few minutes later, help arrived.
I sleep well at night now, perhaps better than I ever have before because I lie beside Juan Manuel, my dearest friend in all the world. He’s a heavy sleeper, just like Gran was—he falls asleep before his head hits the pillow. We sleep together under Gran’s lone-star quilt because some things are better kept the same, whereas other things are better when they change a little. On the walls around us I’ve taken down Gran’s landscape paintings, replacing them with framed photos of Juan Manuel and me.
I listen to his breathing, like rolling waves—in, out, in. And I count my blessings. There are so many of them it’s daunting. I know my conscience is clean because I make it through fewer and fewer blessings each night before I fall into pleasant dreams. I wake up refreshed and joyful, ready to seize the day.
If all of this has taught me anything, it is this: there’s a power in me I never knew was there. I always knew there was power in my hands—to clean, to wipe away dirt, to scour and disinfect, to set things right. But now I know there’s power elsewhere—in my mind. And in my heart too.
Gran was correct after all. About all of it. About everything.
The longer you live, the more you learn.
People are a mystery that can never be solved.
Life has a way of sorting itself out.
Everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, it’s not the end.