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Valentina Cano

First Day

It wasn’t always a hotel, you know. It started its life as a tuberculosis sanatorium, one of those that catered to people who slept in furs. It’s high enough in the mountains for it, of course, it’s the hotel at the highest altitude in all of Europe, but at the time, there were higher sanitariums. More expensive ones, which was all that those people cared about. As if paper bills could return the chipped pieces of their lungs. The coughs these walls have heard! And none of them the delicate scraping of porcelain against porcelain that you may expect from women who wouldn’t be caught dead without gloves and pearls. I imagine they were whopping sounds, booming down the tiled hallways like thunder. You may find the odd spatter of blood even now, despite the efforts to plaster or carpet over them. Fine sprays of it, freckles on the stairwell or on the mantlepieces. I’ve spotted a couple myself, pun very much intended, and I keep a record of where I’ve found them. I mean if you want to see some later.

It’s an entirely more civilized thing now and all the more boring for it. There are no fevers or fainting couches and the satellite television drags everything up to the present with its drone, but I suppose that’s the only reason this place hasn’t rotted down the mountainside like all of its cousins. It out some blush on its cheeks and smacked on lip-gloss. It adapted.

You’ll see what I mean when you start your shift.

It is a tough old place, keep in mind. In the winter, the sun turns everything white and glaring, like living inside a piece of glass, and in the summer, the wind can knock you off the balconies if you’re not careful. We have protocols for it.

We didn’t when your replacement fell, that’s true. But you have to give us some credit for learning from our errors, at least.

The woman fell. That was the official cause of death and technically that is the case. She died from the fall. I suppose the details don’t really matter anymore, not to her, and, as I said, we have protocols in place now.

There are a number of stairwells, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. The ones you have to watch for are the service ones, the wooden ones. They’re original to the place and they’ve grown teeth with age. No matter how many times we sand them down, which we do each year before the season starts, the old things prickle like porcupines, so keep your hands off the banisters unless you want to be digging into your palms and fingers with needles and tweezers. In fact, if you can avoid them altogether, I’d suggest you do so. They’re not what I’d call trustworthy.

If you want to get down to the pool and saunas, all you have to do is follow the pink marble stairs. Not the gray ones because you’ll end up in the shuttered wing and that’s not safe for anyone.

Well, see, the shuttered wing used to be where the isolation rooms were located in the sanatorium. Isolation rooms weren’t the norm in these facilities, actually, I don’t think any other than this one had them, but the head doctor swore they could slow the progress of the illness. He was sure that speaking put a strain on the breathing mechanism. That it is was best to be still and quiet and cold. He had masks patients had to wear to ensure they followed his directions. If you see something lying about that looks like a metal gas mask with a horse’s bit attached to it, it’s one of them. And I’d leave it be, too, if I were you, because we’ve had some unpleasantness with them. They’re tougher to remove than you may think, even without the locks in place.

The kitchen is through there. The staff eats in the room at the back of it, not in the dining room, even when there are no guests in there, and not in the old staff quarters. They’re not safe. As far as we’ve been able to ascertain, the mountain itself does not move. Not so much as a hair’s breadth. There are none of the thunderous quakes that shake other locations, and you will find none of the rock-candy deformities that they can cause except in those old quarters. We’ve had experts zipping up and down the mountain, pressing metal disks that look like nothing if not giant stethoscopes to the rock face, sticking needles long as full-grown men into the stones, all to see what could cause the rooms in that part of the hotel to fold over as if they were made of soggy carboard. But the mountain keeps its malady secret. And the rooms keep collapsing, so we’ve left them to it. There’s just so much money the owners are willing to fling at the building and, in this instance, I tend to agree with their decision.

We’re almost there now, to your rooms.

No, no, it’s best if you do not pay attention to that tapping sound. It gets in your head if you listen at it too closely and it can feel like it’s beating its rhythm into your skull. From what we’ve gathered, those of us who’ve taken some time to take peeks, even minute ones, into the past, is that the doctor’s patients, the ones in isolation, would communicate with one another by tapping or knocking on the walls. I’ve no idea how they managed to come up with the system but I can imagine the taps echoing down the different rooms, a chain of knocks spaced intricately apart. Like beads in a necklace.

The curious thing is that the more you focus on them, the more you listen, the more you are able to understand what the taps mean. They knock spaces in your head and the sound bounces against them for hours at a time. One of the maids—

But it doesn’t matter. You may just want to use your headphones.

➥ Bio