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Poor lighting prevented Lisa from seeing with clarity where she stood. But she did notice a few other things right away.

First, the hot steam hanging in the air, clogging her nostrils; then, the unpleasant heat of that steam against her bare arms; lastly, the distant throbbing in her ears—constant and ringing from all sides—maybe her head, protesting the sudden change in the environment.

For, this wasn’t room 6067 in the hotel between worlds. No place, not even the basement laundry room where Lisa spent most of her time, lacked light and ventilation to this extent.

And Cattaneo? Where was he?

Lisa ventured a step forward, treading on the wet floor where water droplets had condensed on the relatively cooler stone. With this small shift, she smelled salty sweat as if the particles that carried the odor had been activated. In this thick air, nothing moved freely, out of its own will. The particles moved because the workers carrying the baskets of sheets moved; the workers moved because the foreman shouted something from the second floor.

A laundry, then; the main work hall of a laundry.

The foreman kept shouting. He sounded angry. Lisa faced him.

Her eyes slowly adjusted to the frustrating murk, only occasionally interrupted by a few lonely steam-covered bulbs on the high ceiling, so high and distant that she doubted the intelligence of the person who’d installed the lights there. Eventually, Lisa noticed that the foreman pointed at her and kept shouting. But to her confusion, all that he yelled sounded faraway—which was weird, even with the distance between the first floor, where Lisa stood, and the second-floor balcony, where the foreman stood.

The foreman was a large fellow with bulging muscles from decades of labor. Evidently, the drinking and smoking did him no good (both of which he did as he shouted at Lisa). And the steam that traveled up to where he stood certainly rendered breathing difficult. But for him to sound so soft in her ears—how odd.

Odd, like everything else at this laundry, really. What was the point of shouting at people, when this whole setup decreased productivity? Make breathing difficult, get less out of people. Really, it was as simple as that. All workplaces should be nonsmoking and no alcohol. Of course, the foreman couldn’t shoulder the entire responsibility for the silly design of this laundry. He was just that, a foreman—an employee, not the owner. Lisa even noticed pity rising from the deepest part of her heart. Being the intermediary between the workers and the owner was no easy task. Existing in-between, in general, was no easy task.

As Lisa thought this, the foreman slammed his liquor bottle against the trash bin on the second floor. The shattering glass also sounded distant to Lisa. She watched him trample the cigarette on the floor. When Lisa still continued to simply stare at him, he limped down the metal stairs. With each step, his shape magnified, appearing clearer than ever through the steam.

Yet Lisa felt no fear. Instead, her pity deepened. The foreman’s reddened cheeks, the sweat stains under his armpits, his limp, all of it rather saddened Lisa—but most of all, the futility of his frustration toward her. Old man, I am not of this world. Obviously, I am hallucinating again. That explains why Cattaneo isn’t here. Nothing you think you can do to me will have any effect on me.

Someone gently tapped on Lisa’s upper arm. Simultaneously, the hitherto distant noise amplified. Lisa flinched, covering her ears. The change had been too drastic as if someone had turned up the volume of the TV. Instead of watching as an observer, Lisa suddenly found herself in the midst of the show. The cogwheels turned. The chains clanked. And what was throbbing was—only now did Lisa notice the true source—the humongous industrial ironer that claimed most of the space of this laundry.

Two workers stood at the mouth of the ironer. They fed washed sheets into the machine. On the opposite end, two more workers picked up the ironed, folded sheets and tossed them in a basket. All of them wore long navy aprons over white T-shirts, their choice of skirt or pants, and black rubber boots. The logo on the aprons said: Cattaneo Laundry. The monster machine huffed and puffed angry steam and Lisa grimaced, but none of the workers seemed to share her dismay; they were too tired to share anything.

Bewildered, Lisa turned to face the person who’d tapped her arm and caused this shift. A girl stood there. The first thing Lisa noticed about this girl was a soap scent, distinct despite her sweating body. Familiar. The same smell of soap that lingered on Lisa at the moment. Not the hotel’s jasmine shampoo, no. Something else. Something more real. Real because Lisa had been real in the days when she’d smelled of the same soap as this girl.

At once, profound affection swelled in Lisa’s stomach, along with a nostalgia for something that she’d forgotten she missed: home.

“Annie,” she croaked, without knowing how.

“Yes, I’m Annie,” the girl said, half amused, half worried. She was shorter than Lisa by a span; plumper; hair deep brown instead of sandy like Lisa’s. “Answer him, Lisa,” said Annie, pointing at the foreman, his curses now clearly audible.

“You think you can ignore me?” he shouted, approaching fast. “You think you’re so high and mighty, you don’t care how many loads we have to work through, how your coworkers struggle to stay on schedule while you just stand there?”

When Lisa stared at him without answering, he grabbed her by the arm and shook her.

“Answer me!”

“Stop it, Daddy,” said Annie. She patted the foreman’s hand on Lisa; not to hurt him, but firmly enough to make him let go. “Lisa, tell him you’re sorry.”

“I…” muttered Lisa.

She examined herself and quickly found the reason this man thought she worked here. She wore the navy Cattaneo Laundry apron and black rubber boots like everybody else. She touched her hair; it had been braided. French braids, to be exact, from the crown of her head to the nape of her neck. The same style as Annie.

“What is wrong with you, girl?” said the foreman, Annie’s father. “What, did you drink? Are you drugged? What is it?”

“She’s just not feeling too well today,” said Annie, giving Lisa a minuscule nod; to get her on board with this lie, Lisa presumed.

“No, no, look,” the foreman pointed at Lisa’s eyes. Old white scars covered his hands. The blisters from steam burns had healed, but the scars would never fade away. “She’s fine,” he said. “She’s not sweating like the rest of us, she’s not shaking on her feet either. She isn’t sick. She’s just lazy, that’s what.”

“Watch out!” a man said from behind Lisa.

Two men tottered toward her at great speed. They carried a basket heavier than the combination of them and had lost balance. Frozen to the spot, Lisa ripped her eyes wide open—

The foreman pulled her back. The two men slammed on the wall instead of Lisa. The basket tipped over and spit out dirty laundry.

“Pick them up!” the foreman said, still holding Lisa’s arm. “Are you mad? Look where you’re going. You almost killed my daughter.”

“How is anyone supposed to know where he’s going when it’s so dark here?” one of the men shouted back as he scrambled up. “Tell your girl to stop standing in the middle of the way.”

“Shut up and get back to work!” the foreman said.

Grunting and cursing, the men collected the dirty laundry.

The foreman turned to Lisa. “Do you see that? That’s what happens when you just stand around. Do you hear me?”

Without answering, Lisa stared at the foreman. Tears rose in her eyes. This seemed to surprise him, as it did Annie. Lisa wanted to tell them that she was just as surprised; but she feared that if she moved or spoke, she’d start weeping uncontrollably.

The foreman let go of Lisa. Without his pressure, she realized how much his grip around her arm had hurt. But that wasn’t why she was on the brink of crying.

“I’m sorry,” the foreman muttered, truly sorry, then hissed with renewed irritation, “but you can’t loiter while everyone else is working hard. Okay? You two have to work even harder than the rest of them. You’re the foreman’s daughters. That’s reason enough for them to not like you. Okay?”

“Okay. Come on, Lisa,” said Annie, nudging Lisa to get her to speak. “Lisa.”

Lisa swallowed her tears instead of speaking.

“You think crying will solve anything?” the foreman said.

Of course not. If crying could solve anything, the world would be a better place.

“You,” the foreman said, pointing at Annie, “you go home right after your shift tonight.”

“Oh, Dad,” protested Annie.

“No ‘Oh, Dad’,” said the foreman.

“I’m fine staying. It’s my turn, I should stay. And Lisa’s only just started working here and learning things. She’s part-time.”

“She’s seventeen, for God’s sake. Making herself useful can’t be that difficult with all four functioning limbs.”

“But she still has to do homework for school, and get up early tomorrow, and—”

“And you used to do that back when you were in school. And you”—the foreman pointed at Lisa—“you’ll be on duty tonight instead of your sister. Do you understand?”

Lisa nodded enthusiastically, wiping off tears from her eyes. This sudden eagerness puzzled the foreman and Annie, but the former snorted it off and the latter seemed to interpret it as a sign of Lisa’s recovery from her inexplicable state of numbness.

“No standing around,” the foreman said.

Lisa nodded.

“Answer me in words, girl,” he said in frustration. “Did you go mute? What is it?”

Lisa shook her head.

“Tell him you’re sorry,” whispered Annie. She put an arm around Lisa’s arm and Lisa trembled. “Daddy, I really do think she’s sick. Let her go home early and rest. I’m fine being on duty. It’s not like there’s anything much to do. It’s just sleeping here instead of sleeping at home.”

“Then it’s something that your sister can do too,” the foreman said.

Lisa nodded.

“She wants to be rid of us anyway and loves that extra cash,” he added.

Lisa shook her head frantically.

The foreman and Annie frowned at each other with some alarm. This—Lisa’s head-shaking—had been completely unexpected. But the foreman said nothing. Instead, he reacted by shaking his own head. He was determined to chase off all doubts that weren’t immediately related to the operation of the laundry. He had no energy to deal with minor puzzlements right now. Slowly, he limped off, still shaking his head.

“I’m sorry,” said Lisa at his back. Her voice broke, but she added, “Daddy.”

Because, if this was what Lisa thought it was, she’d never see him again. Ever.

This was the last day of her beforelife.

The foreman didn’t look at her. “Yeah, yeah,” he said, waving his two daughters off and away as he climbed the metal stairs. “Silly girl. Crying.”

© 2021 Ithaka O.
All rights reserved.
This story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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