Authors: Patrick Ness
THE CRASH OF HENNINGTON
‘Souls have complexions, too: what will suit one will not suit another.’
For Marc Nowell
And in memory of my remarkable great aunt,
She smelled dawn even before the sun looked over the horizon. A low mist clung to the sleeping bodies surrounding her at intervals across the lea. Breath clouded up from her great nose in increasing puffs as wakefulness filled her body. She raised her head and glanced around the sloping green of the meadow.
The first one awake. Usual and expected. The way it should be and was.
She turned her head to the sunrise coursing down from the hilltop. A low flood of light illuminated the mist and cast the dozing members of the herd as gray, rocky islands in a sea of white. She breathed in as the morning reached her lips and, leaning back to gather the proper force of weight, hoisted herself to her feet.
Time to move into the daybreak.
The front lobby of the Solari was made entirely of marble, even the sunlight. Any hotel guest – say, this one here, with the inappropriate clothes and the reminiscing smile – standing at the entrance to the second most opulent and expensive hotel in Hennington could see in detail the shiny yet persistently flat white-flecked black marble that made up the sprawling floor, though he would be hard pressed to find a seam, the expense apparently having been poured into the material’s quality rather than its beauty. Given that the outside of the Solari was as shiny and edged as a precisely folded piece of foil, it might be surprising to this particular visitor, though perhaps not, that the interior, with its deep black expanses peppered with spots and streaks of white, could be so ominous and still. A blanket of the universe wrapped up as a present, perhaps.
Stepping inside the lobby’s marble rhombus, the visitor would see marble planters, marble doorways, a marble waterfall tastefully placed beneath a marble sculpture (of a marble-worker), a marble bellhop stand (currently vacant), marble directional signs and an enormous single marble front desk, fully twelve meters long, in the shape of a sperm whale beaching itself seemingly because of unfathomable heartbreak in the deep, deep sea. Looking behind the behemoth, the guest, if he ventured further indoors, which it seems he has, would lay his eyes on the first organic thing he would have seen so far in the lobby of the Solari, representational whales notwithstanding: a person in the form of Eugene Markham, Solari front desk clerk.
It is with surly, unhappy Eugene that this story truly begins.
Eugene sat on his back-paining swivel chair behind the whale, thinking about suicide. Not seriously considering it, just mooning over the act in the manner of many a pale twenty-something with a broken heart. His girlfriend had left him for another man, a non-Rumour no less, but that had happened so often in life it was an insipid topic of insipid pop songs. Speaking of which, Eugene’s band, Dirges For Betty, hadn’t written any, pop songs that is, or at least any good ones or for that matter even any insipid ones, and Eugene was beginning to believe no one ever slept with the bass player anyway. Then there was the scaly chrysalia which had suddenly broken out all over his genitals and which was shaping up to be the only lasting legacy of his now-former relationship. And, oh, yes, he had just been demoted from catering to front desk. So one might forgive Eugene for being less attentive than usual when the shimmery-haired stranger – the selfsame guest who had sized up the Solari, now having made his way to the front desk – checked in. He (Eugene) was too caught up in wondering whether you slashed your wrists parallel or perpendicular to your palm and whether, since your palm was more or less square, this was even the right question to ask.
—Do you have any rooms available?
Eugene peeled back the skin from a hangnail on his thumb. The strip pulled off all the way back to the first joint. It bled and it hurt like hell, but it was also kind of impressive in its own macabre sort of way. Though he was unaware of it, Eugene cracked a smile.
—Now why would you want to go ahead and do a thing like that?
Eugene teleported back from his languor and at last noticed the man standing before him.
—Can I help you?
—I might very well ask you the same thing, my good fellow.
The man was dressed entirely in black, incredible given that Hennington was in the thick of summer, when Hilke’s Winds blew off the Brown Desert, turning the city into a humidity-free place of chapped lips, bloody noses and queer tempers, where the heat rarely dipped below forty during the day despite the best efforts of a calm, cool ocean that seemed as intimidated by the heat as those unfortunate Hennington residents without air conditioning, which, oh yeah, was another of Eugene’s problems. The man in black looked like he was either approaching or leaving behind fifty, but he exuded health like a pheromone. His skin was bronzed almost to the tan of Eugene’s own Rumour hue, but this man was no Rumour. His nearly black hair was clipped short and neat and contained, Eugene was surprised to find himself thinking, a well-nigh dazzlingly handsome sprinkling of gray. The man’s eyes were a green so light it neared pastel, contrasting, even highlighting, his long black coat, black shirt, black pants, black belt and black boots. All in all, a preposterous outfit in this weather. There was another thing. This man had, what was it?, an
about him, a warm calmness, a smile that invited, a glance that seemed to show patience as well as an invitation. Maybe it was something as simple as charisma. Maybe he was just an exceptionally good-looking man. Whatever it was, the result was this: Eugene liked fucking girls (a lot); nevertheless, he was aware of the erection pressing against the crotch of his uniform, causing the chrysalia to itch all the more.
—Let’s start again. I’d like a room.
The spell dissipated. Eugene’s confusing hardness faded. Something lingered, though, and Eugene’s mind, in its own
ham-fisted way, toyed with the something that hovered around this man. If it hadn’t been for a single red pimple near the bridge of the man’s nose, Eugene might have convinced himself he was seeing a vision. Or even a god, maybe.
—How long will you be staying?