Amanda hadn’t noticed exactly when the children arrived, which was unusual because she was accustomed to juggling multiple observations like plates balanced by a uniformed circus seal. As the assistant senior concierge for the Sofitel Hotel on 44th Street—located within walking distance of the world-famous Times Square, scenic Central Park, and the renowned shopping district on 5th Avenue—she was required to practice omniscience and omnipresence at all times, or at least have the professional courtesy to fake it convincingly.
So far that week, in between dispensing advice about five-star restaurants and Broadway show tickets, she’d procured a bathtub full of Amedei Porcelana chocolate, arranged for signed photos of Nicolas Cage to preside over a guest’s bathroom (Con Air specifically, Honeymoon In Vegas optionally), rented a llama and dressed it as Boba Fett, and ensured that the strawberries waiting in a hip-hop star’s suite were all the same dimensions. She asked as few questions as possible.
But it was mid-day now, the late afternoon hullabaloo still a few hours away, and she could afford to relax just a little. Foot traffic bustled through the hallways. Guests swam in from the street, craning their necks to take in the spiral staircase, the artistically-tiled flooring, all the minute, expert-approved details of the pageantry that the entire staff worked diligently to maintain.
Her eyes swept the lobby. The children—a wiry boy of perhaps six or seven, and a girl, presumably his sister, a year younger—were fidgeting in the Business Area’s pristine leather seats, no accompanying adults in sight. The girl, whose T-shirt featured dinosaurs conducting lab experiments in space, murmured something intently to her companion while rummaging through a messenger bag the size of Wyoming. He rebuked her with the indisputable authority of an elder sibling engraved on his face: The Divine Right of the Older Brother. He pointed towards Amanda and slid off his seat, on a Holy Mission.
Amanda adjusted her heels. Please let this not be a thing. Maybe they just needed directions to the restroom. Or to take an emergency afternoon helicopter jaunt with Katy Perry. They were kids and wouldn’t have been able to book a room, but if the concierge desk had taught her anything, it was that predictable expectations were for other people.
He materialized at her elbow. “Excuse me. Good afternoon. I know you’re busy, but we need help, my sister and I. Would you come over for a moment?”
“Yes, of course. I’ll be right there.”
“Excellent. I appreciate your assistance.” The boy tucked his shirt in and strode back to his seat, probably to review his stock portfolio while he waited.
A fervent exchange erupted between the siblings, and Amanda crossed over. She stood directly in front of the girl, who seemed to barely notice. The five-year-old scanned the room, her head oscillating like facial-recognition mode had been activated. She was waiting.
Amanda warmed her most charming smile and shone it on the girl’s face, crouching down to meet her at eye level. “Hi! My name is Amanda. I’m here to help. Are you lost? Are your parents staying at this hotel?”
Damn it. She could hear the future paperwork collating.
She wasn’t afraid of challenges. It was just that sometimes, the weight of her student loans, four years breathing typography and molding pixels, the shadow that passed over her when she glimpsed brilliant designs and remembered they might’ve been hers if her trajectory had veered a few degrees in a different direction at exactly the right time—all of it coalesced into a pressure point that drummed steadily on. Somehow, the exciting two-year opportunity to gopher the bizarre and the impractical had slowly metamorphosed into a five-year stint that left both her bank account and her chi resentful. Pampering was only what she did, not who she was. The frozen life her brain had cultivated still existed; she was going to get back there someday.
Amanda brushed her internal diatribe aside and faced the boy. “OK. Your sister’s a bit shy, so you can tell me—what’s going on?”
“She steals. She’s been at it for days.”
“I don’t understand.”
He helped his sister to her feet, and Amanda’s face formed a question. The girl had been sitting on at least two dozen Sofitel customer satisfaction comment cards.
Amanda chortled, relieved. “Well, listen, I know it was difficult to come tell me, but you’re not in any trouble. I’ll put these back for you, and no harm done, OK?”
It was the girl who answered. “It’s not just the cards. It’s everything.” Her face was ashen, terrified. “They need everything. They won’t tell me why. I don’t know what it’s for.” She plowed through her cavernous bag, pausing to present Amanda with each item: a pair of iPod earbuds still in the packaging, a Snickers, shopper loyalty cards, Chapstick, a weathered Best Buy receipt, a coupon for $.50 off the leading brand of dishwashing detergent, a feather, a five-dollar bill, two postcards, an unopened zen garden mini-kit, a fridge magnet commemorating Duran Duran’s 1999 “Let It Flow” tour, and God only knew what else.
The concierge blinked at the mediocre smorgasbord. “Where did you get—“
“People’s cars. Offices. Garbage cans. The floor. They say every piece is a monument to their greatness and will be important when it starts.”
“When what starts? Who’s telling you to steal this…junk? Except for the earbuds, most of these things look like they came from the bottom of someone’s purse.”
“It’s only junk because it’s what I could find. If there were something better around, I’d steal that too.”
“Do you know the person who’s asking you to steal?”
The girl gawped. “I never see their faces. I don’t think they’re people.”
Her brother demonstrably glared, making sure Amanda knew he didn’t hold with any of this tomfoolery. “Would you please communicate to my sister that this type of behavior is grossly unacceptable, and that her imagination is causing her to act inappropriately? You’re an adult; she’ll listen to you.” Then, to her sister: “This has persisted long enough. You have to stop stealing.”
“I can’t,” she whispered, her eyes massive and pleading. “They won’t like it. They already said I couldn’t tell anyone.”
Amanda smiled reassuringly and dove into her purse for her cell, having no concept whatsoever who she was going to call.
And then, one by one, the lights went out until the lobby was shrouded in darkness. The children shivered. Amanda whipped backwards like a paper chain garland in a gale force wind, but her vision was blurred. Paresthesia set in, her feet rooting to the Italian marble tile, and puzzlement swept her, enveloping from every corner.
Outside, no one glanced at the hotel. West 44th Street hummed with the dynamic, perpetual, non-descript sounds of the Center of the Universe.
How May We Hate You? is a blog run by two concierges in Times Square. I was going through older posts recently and this one jumped out at me
I made it into a fiction prompt.
Both in terms of plot and style, this story is a departure for me.