I don’t know what I saw then. My vision was blurry and the whole thing had happened so fast, I felt it wasn’t immutable; that it wasn’t in the past yet and could still be changed. Like the moment just after you hit something with your car, and the crash replays in your mind and you feel cheated that you can’t go back and change it, make it so you never hit that thing, whatever it was. They backed off, or they seemed to. They moved away from me in absolute silence and became misted, ill-defined, melting into the darkness that surrounded them. Like an Escher drawing they were there and yet they weren’t; a leg was also space between two cars; the angle of an arm echoed by a shadow; ambient light falling on a headlight was also face. A wind tugged at my jacket, my ears popped, and they were gone.
I lay there for a while, without the energy even to wipe my mouth. My nose felt as if it had expanded to three times its normal size and my entire face hurt, a deep throbbing ache that began behind my eyes. I tried not to breathe too hard.
The ground underneath me was freezing. I started to shiver, then to shudder. I couldn’t think clearly, but I was dimly aware that if I stayed where I was and no one found me, I could easily fall asleep and not wake up. Exposure, I thought. Hypothermia. Get inside.
I started to move, had to bite my tongue, panting. When I lifted my head, flashes of light blinded me and the car-park swooped and spun around like the world was trying to tip me off. I crawled, pulling myself along with numb, frozen hands, found a car and hung onto the door-handle. Clinging to it, I heaved, used it to pull myself up. I kept having to rest. I had to rest then, lying with my cheek pressed to the wet, cold metal, listening to the awful moaning noises I was making. My legs wouldn’t hold me up. I staggered drunkenly from one car to another, once bashing my knee against a bumper so hard I nearly fell.
I hauled myself up the hotel steps by clinging to the rail. The world was still out of focus. One of my eyes wouldn’t open properly, and my nose was a world of pain all by itself. It felt now about the size of a planet, and every step I took sent jolts of searing agony through my face. Once I got inside all I wanted to do was collapse onto the carpet, but I had an audience. A monolith in turquoise so bright it hurt my eyes came toward me at a fast waddle. Closer too it unblurred a little and I was able to identify it as Debbie Nash, her poise fled, her mouth open in an ‘oh’ of appalled disbelief.
“Mr. Lyle?” she stammered. “Mr. Lyle!” I said something incoherent. One of my teeth was loose and I didn’t much want to move my mouth, but she in the meantime recovered her aplomb. “Were you attacked?” she demanded. “We’ll have to phone the police. Or an ambulance.”
She called to the other person, whom I now recognized as the night porter. He was in his sixties easily, barely scraping five five and had arms like knotted old rope, yet I’d witnessed him toting enormous, bulging cases up and down the stairs like they were feather pillows. Together they led me into the hotel bar where the porter wordlessly poured out a brandy and set it before me. In a mushy, slurred voice I refused any other assistance, including the police being called. Mrs. Nash looked relieved at this news and didn’t press me. I supposed she was thinking of the bad publicity: A death, and now a guest beaten to a pulp mere feet from her door.
She patted my hand, a gesture she seemed immediately to regret.
“Well now, I expect you’ll feel better in the morning,” she told me. “But I’m sure you’ve realized now it will only lead to trouble.”
“Trouble Mr. Lyle,” she drummed one finger on the shiny veneer surface of the bar table. “Going about asking questions. There are some things we are not meant to know.”
“What?” I said. I stared at her out of my good eye but her face was an impassive mask.
“Goodnight Mr. Lyle.” She got up and left.
I looked at the glass of brandy. No answers there. I made it to the lift and finally into my room, where, despite the fire regulations, I locked the door and shot the bolt before falling into bed.