The Burnt Floor
Bronski and Janet saved for three years but could only afford a room on the burnt floor. The hotel was a fifteen-minute drive from the amusement park, all those lanky spotted mammals behind high fences, the wavelike rollercoasters plummeting from frozen peaks. The first two floors were four-star accommodations. The third, one point five.
The room contained two beds, frames scarred black. The ceiling was veined charcoal, the rugs blossoming with scorch marks, black ripples on a white pond. Only one wall retained its original green-and-white wallpaper. The rest curled, blackened, exposing pale sheetrock beneath.
At least the beds had clean sheets. They looked clean, anyway—Bronski couldn’t smell much of anything through the respirator. Each of the kids wore one, too, in a child’s size. The clear plastic window obscured little Becky’s face, dimming her eyes, swallowing her cheeks beneath twin filters. Jeremy’s was too small; the rubber straps sank into his neck, reddening his pale skin.
When they first started planning this vacation, years ago, Bronski and Janet had smiled at each other over the
freedom it would bring, the shrugging off of responsibilities and anxieties. But then Janet’s hours were reduced and Bronski’s company stopped handing out Christmas bonuses, and by the time they checked the online box for the burnt room, they were no longer smiling.
Jeremy attempted to view the park from their window, but the smoked haze of the pane was too clotted. There was a spot at the corner where a previous guest had tried to scrape away the singed layer with a razor blade. It was the only clear spot, a window within a window. Jeremy bent, removing his respirator, unburdening his irritated skin, pressing his bare cheek to the pane, squinting.
Bronski sprinted to his son’s side, snapping the mask back in place. “What did we say?” he asked.
“Sorry, Dad,” his son replied.
“You can take it off outside. In here, you’ve got to be safe.”
Then Bronski lowered himself to the small clear pane, searching for the castles of plastic and synthetic stone, those birthday cake lights strung along turrets. But he could only see his own reflection, framed by that ring of black char.
On the first day, they rode the roller coasters. Afterward, little Becky attempted to pet the lanky spotted mammals, a smile painted on her face. Bronski kept raising her up over his head, helping her get those extra feet. A staff member in a safari hat and cargo shorts scolded them, threatened to have them kicked out, but their family knew something about evasion and bled back into the crowd, an estuary emptying into the open sea.
Jeremy said it was the best day of his life, even though he’d thrown up all over himself and Becky after round three of rollercoastering.
Becky agreed as she wrung out her dress over a fountain with a marble shrew at its center.
“At least it doesn’t smell as bad as the room,” Becky said after adjusting her sodden outfit.
“Did you take your mask off?” Janet asked, turning on their daughter.
They’d told the kids the same thing that was in the waiver they signed at the front desk: the rooms were only carcinogenic if the air wasn’t filtered.
“I had to itch my nose,” Becky said.
Bronski shook his head, careful to not unseat the animal ears his children forced him to buy. “Just don’t do it again, alright?”
Upon returning, they crossed through the immaculately draped entranceway, thick crimson carpet beneath their feet, golden curtains obscuring unblemished windows, the waft of chlorine spilling over from the indoor swimming pool. They passed two golden sphinxes on their way to the stairwell.
The elevator only went to the second floor.
Before they could push open the heavy, pneumatic door, a bellhop ran over and sprayed them down with perfumed rose water. The children coughed and wiped at their eyes. Bronski made sure to hold his breath. The hotel called the practice scent therapy, as if it were for the good of those residing on the burnt floor rather than the rest of their guests and the world at large. An employee sprayed the concoction whenever their family entered or exited the building, like passing through a carwash.
Bronski held open the stairwell door with one hand, drying his lips with the other.
Janet doled out the respirators as they climbed.
In the early morning, Bronski woke to what he thought were bird songs, maybe those swamp crows he’d read about in the guidebook. After the haze of sleep receded, the noise more closely resembled the sound of his children giggling, the elastic twang of rubber snapping into place over bare flesh. Bronski sat up, turning to where his two children lay in bed. They were still, frozen beneath the sheets, masks possibly askew. It was dark, made all the darker by the burnt sky overhead. Bronski wondered if it was his fear driving an auditory hallucination, all those whispered jokes from his coworkers about fire-retardant swimwear. The kids were probably fine.
Nestling back into his pillow, Bronski had flashes of what their vacation could have been if there were only more hours in the day or an eighth day of the week on which to earn overtime. But his company no longer offered overtime, just regular time, and the burnt floor was all they’d ever be able to afford. He tried to push the whispers from his mind.
He rolled over and slung an arm around Janet, pulling her close, letting himself believe he’d done right.
The next day was more rollercoastering. Banks of screens showed the kids as they screamed down long drops, as they screamed at boogeymen who emerged from behind fiberglass crypts, as they screamed as their spacecraft fell from orbit. Like everyone else in the park, Janet and Bronski never purchased the photos, only snapping grainy duplicates with their cellphones. A souvenir was still a souvenir.
Bronski hoped that was the only thing they carried home with them. He started to worry when little Becky began to cough uncontrollably after exiting a western-themed Hey-Hey sing-along cart ride. The cough went on and on, wet and dry at the same time. Harsh to the ear.
“Too much singing, honey?” Janet asked, stooping to Becky’s level, pulling her close.
“They played all my favorite songs,” Becky stammered between coughs, a ropey line of snot connecting their shirts in a spiderweb weave. “I couldn’t help it.”
“You sang beautifully dear,” Janet replied, catching Bronski’s eye, her brows furrowed in concern.
Everyone said you had to take the kids to the park before they got too old, before the magic wouldn’t be magic. The years weren’t slowing. If he had put off the trip a few more months, he would have put it off a few more months after that, and so on and so forth until he found himself crying at songs from their childhood as he dropped little Becky off at college.
No, now was the only time, regardless of the money, regardless of the room, regardless of the rash that was spreading around the contours of his mask where the gasket pressed tight to his cheeks. The kids deserved their three days at the park and Bronski deserved those three days where he could be present in their lives, not some blur rushing out the door at five in the morning, only reappearing after dinner had been cleared from the table.
“It’s a great deal, but not that great,” the woman behind the front desk said, a fake smile stretching her cheeks. She toyed with a pen and sketchpad, doodling little caricatures of human faces.
“But I thought we had access to the pool?” Bronski said, hand on Jeremy’s shirtless shoulder, his swim trunks laced tight around his stomach, towel in hand.
“If you selected the upgraded package, yes, the pool would be all yours, but your reservation says you chose our economy option.”
“Can’t you just let us in, just this once? No one will notice.”
“Oh, people will definitely notice, but I can bump you up to full access for another fifty dollars a night. This covers the sanitation fees for our third-floor guests. Would that work?” the woman asked, her doodle beginning to resemble Bronski, his sleep-deprived baggy eyes, the desperate frown carving his face.
“But we’re already paying—”
Bronski’s reply was cut short by a series of sneezes from Jeremy followed by a chorus of coughs. His son covered his face with his towel, bending low toward the plush carpets. The fit wouldn’t stop.
“You should probably get that looked at,” the woman said. “Somewhere not right in front of my desk.”
Bronski wanted to scream, to tear the notepad from her hands and scribble out the insult of himself etched there, replacing the drawing with his own rendition of the woman and what he thought about her subpar service, but he couldn’t ignore Jeremy’s distress. Without another word, he steered his son toward the stairwell, through the perfumed mist of rose water.
“We’ll just get you into the shower, right bud? A shower’s basically the same thing as a swimming pool, yeah? Just as good, I promise.”
The third day was less rollercoastering, more snapshots with park fixtures. Men and women dressed as fairytale characters. Ridiculous confectionary streets. Castles that seemed to blot out the sun. Janet wanted to get a shot of their children in front of each landmark.
“Just put your arms around each other,” Janet said, waving the children together before a man-made waterfall, an animatronic orangutan eternally peeling bananas to their left.
“Haven’t we taken enough pictures?” Jeremy asked, his sunburned cheeks glistening, a labored wheeze accompanying the question. The kids had been lethargic since breakfast.
“There will never be enough pictures,” Janet muttered as she snapped the shot, quiet enough only Bronski could hear her.
“Can we go to the pirate ship again?” Becky asked.
“Yeah, let’s do the pirate thing again,” Jeremy added, before a skull rattling sneeze escaped from his mouth and nose.
Unlike the day before, a stream of black mucus coated his shirtfront, snot mixed with coal dust and char, a river of oil dripping onto the downtown sidewalk. He raised his hands, touching his nose, inspecting the black webbing, eyes growing wider with each second. Then he was screaming, and little Becky was screaming, and Janet was screaming, and a man dressed like a pantless opossum was escorting them to a white-walled service station behind the so-called lollipop factory. A tiny rhino attendant appeared from inside, wiping at Jeremy’s face with a towel, mopping up the black mucus, smothering his screams until they faded to whimpers.
“Staying on the burnt floor?” the pantless opossum asked Bronski, pulling him aside as the rhino gave the children and Janet rainbow-colored lollipops the size of basketballs.
“How did you—”
“This happens all the time. We have a protocol now,” the opossum said as he scratched his distended belly.
“But the manager said it was safe.”
“Hey, I’m not casting judgement, but I need you and yours out of my clean-up room. We charge by the minute.”
“Are you serious?”
“Don’t worry, the lollipops are on the house. Just get going, alright?”
Bronski never imagined he’d be intimidated by a giant pantless opossum, but he also never imagined he’d put his family at risk for a few blurry photos on a water slide and a shot of his kids hugging a stranger dressed like a cute, moderately stoned alien. He thanked the opossum, shook the rhino’s hand, then escorted his family back into the sweltering summer sun.
The pirate ride no longer held the same appeal.
“We’re leaving,” Janet yell-whispered into Bronski’s ear, carting little Becky away toward the parking lot, Jeremy following in a half daze at their heels, gnawing on his lollipop with sluggish bites. “You need to find us somewhere to sleep.”
Bronski sighed. “I can do that,” he replied, unlocking their rental minivan. The respirators were piled on the back seat, those empty plastic eyes staring back at Bronski from the upholstery as if he were the world’s biggest idiot, as if he’d fallen for the oldest trick in the book.
“Great deal. Real great,” he muttered as he pushed the masks onto the floor, making space so Jeremy could stretch out on the seat, the A/C breathing down from twin vents in the ceiling.
That night, they didn’t return to the burnt floor. Instead, Bronski found a public park, one with a lot of trees. They’d sleep beneath the open sky, the far-off arches of the rollercoasters hidden by citrus groves and palms, the firework show muted by distance and several freeways.
They found a flat stretch of ground far enough from any wetlands. All the ponds and rivers in the area had signs warning of alligators, of water snakes, of parasitic fish. Bronski laid out blankets on a layer of mulch and drying fronds, smoothing out the pointed leaves before his family could take their place.
The night sky resembled the charred ceiling in some distant way, the eroding blackness of it, but each breath Bronski sucked down was light in his lungs, the synthetic plastic replaced by his wife and children’s sweat, the fried chicken-finger scent clinging to their mouths.
“Are we going back for our stuff?” Jeremy asked, half asleep.
“I’ll go up and get the bags,” Bronski said.
“That place smelled,” Jeremy muttered, tucking his face into his mother’s side.
Bronski could almost smell the smoke on the wind, but for the moment, the scent of char was far off, a concern for later. He sucked in another lungful of air and lay quiet, listening for something moving in the bushes, something from those warning signs with scales, sharp teeth, mouths that could easily fit a child. He’d stay awake all night if he had to. He’d been careless with his family’s safety once.