The hike to the lodge took two days. At noon on the first day, Jess received a text from her husband: ‘Hope you get loads done.’ His words rang as hollow as any of their exchanges over the past year. Shortly after receiving the message, her phone lost signal. The occasional hikers she crossed paths with thinned out, and by the time she decided to set up camp for the night, she hadn’t seen anyone in hours. She pitched her tent in a recess at the foot of a cliff, hoping it would shield her from the wind. It didn’t; the wind howled and the tent flapped all night as she lay in her sleeping bag wide awake, clutching the bear spray her husband had insisted she take with her. She fell asleep just before dawn.
Karl Holt, a writer Jess followed on social media, had referred on his blog to an old hunter’s lodge, hidden away in a remote mountain, where he claimed to have written not one, not two, but three books, in their entirety and in a single stretch — an incredible feat, and a siren call for a struggling author like Jess, who was just as keen for a miracle cure to writer’s block as for an excuse to leave the house.
After a touch of online detective work, Jess believed to have found the lodge on a travel site. It had only one review, submitted anonymously:
“If you want peace and quiet, and time to write, this is the place. You’ll have as much time as you need. There’s electricity, but at some point you’ll need the typewriter.”
It seemed absurd, if not impossible, to lug a typewriter up a mountain, so Jess opted for her laptop, plus a few notepads for good measure.
Throughout the second day, the climb grew increasingly challenging. Jess kept losing her footing, sending stones tumbling in her wake down the mountainside. Her backpack tore into her shoulders, her brand new walking boots were shredding her feet to pieces, and she was exhausted, but it was too cold to sleep under the stars again, so in the fear of not reaching the lodge before nightfall, she barely stopped for a break. Running on energy bars, she climbed on, keeping her head down, failing to take in the mountain’s ample supply of unspoilt, widescreen vistas.
What she did notice, however, as she steeled herself to cross a rope bridge dangling over a bottomless gorge, was the black bird of prey circling in the sky above, hiding in the glare of the sun. The bird seemed to be holding out for a tragic accident and an easy meal, but far from deterring Jess, its ghoulish presence proved a welcome distraction from her vertigo: she imagined her body smashed on the rocks below, and the bird plucking out her eyeballs, ripping morsels of flesh off her face, then clawing through her coat and layers of sweat-soaked clothing to feed on the rest of her mangled corpse. After the bridge, the bird followed her for a while, then at one point she looked up again and it was gone.
The weather had remained bright and clear since she’d set off, but at dusk on that second day, when Jess felt simultaneously certain she was nearing her goal while doubting she’d ever reach it at all, a bank of clouds came rolling in from the east. At last, she took a moment to stop, if only to stare with rising dread at the horizon growing darker and the clouds creeping onwards, seeping into every nook and cranny of the range, swallowing it peak by peak.
She pushed on and soon found herself at the top of a ridge which formed the rim of a natural basin, roughly circular and about a quarter of a mile wide. Across the basin, a sheer wall of rock stretched into the sky. Jess craned her neck, trying to make out the top, then looked down into the basin and saw the lodge.
Once, the basin had held a lake. The lake had dried up centuries ago, leaving behind an immense, barren enclosure bedded with pebbles, and right there in the middle of it stood the lodge, like a ship long abandoned by a tide which had one day receded and chosen to never return.
Jess glanced back at the clouds closing in then hurried down the slope. Her legs felt like jelly. The dry soil gave under her, but she didn’t fall, and just as she made it to level ground inside the basin, the clouds surged and swept across the sky like thick, billowing smoke. Within minutes, what remained of the day was extinguished, snuffed out like a candle, and Jess was left peering through the obscurity. Up ahead, the lodge was distinct only as a portion of gloom blacker than the night.
As she began to cross the expanse, taking slow, careful steps, she became acutely aware of the thundering sound of her boots crunching on the pebbles, and of the echo — eerily crisp and clear — which dwarfed her as it bounced around the basin and carried far and wide, giving her the impression that she had wandered blindfolded onto the stage of a gigantic auditorium.
Jess stopped and stood still. The wind had died. Beyond her own shallow breaths, there was nothing but darkness and profound silence, as if the mountain was lying in wait. Her heart thumped in her chest as she pulled out her flashlight, switched it on and scanned the night: the beam shined into the distance, all the way to the walls of the basin, and Jess realised that, despite the way the clouds had engulfed the mountain, there was no fog inside the basin, not a hint of it. Then, she aimed the beam straight up: it smacked into a roof of clouds thirty feet above the ground. The clouds weren’t drifting; they were inert. They seemed to have congealed into a solid, horizontal plane, sealing off the basin like a lid on a saucepan.
Fighting an impulse to break into a frantic run, she turned the flashlight towards the lodge and walked as fast as she could. She reached the building and knocked on the door but no one answered. She tried to let herself in but the door — its wood warped and cracked — was stuck in its frame. A sharp panic turned her stomach. She kicked at the door then rammed it hard with her shoulder, hard enough to bruise herself. Another kick and the door budged by an inch; pulling back, she slammed her full weight into it once more and it burst open. Jess crashed through and shut herself in.
In the cramped hallway, the air was stale. Specks of dust — disturbed by Jess’ sudden entrance — danced in the dim, yellow glow of the bulb hanging above her head. Under her feet, gaps in the floorboards teased a pitch-black crawlspace, as if the night, not content with having wrapped itself around the lodge, had also slithered into its foundations. On the right, a staircase ascended into darkness, and on the left the hallway narrowed into a long corridor, its low ceiling trailed with more anaemic bulbs, like in the tunnels of a mine.
As the dust settled, Jess took stock. The limited information she’d found online had made no promise of luxury, but this was starker than anything she’d imagined. The only photo of the lodge on its listing had been a tightly framed exterior shot showing a plain, two-storey stone construction with tiny, sunken windows and a roof of black slates. The photo had given no clue as to the lodge’s peculiar setting or its bare-bones interior.
Given the choice, she would’ve turned back and left right away. Any elation at having climbed a mountain on her own, aiming for an elusive destination, taking the kind of risks she had spent her whole life avoiding, was quashed by the grim reality of what she had walked into. But she had brought it upon herself. Her exile was self-imposed. She tried to reason that such draconian conditions were a necessary evil if she ever intended to beat that novel out of her. Maybe this place, far off the beaten track, with no views to offer, no road access, cut off from the rest of the world, was in fact perfect if all one required was peace, quiet, and — above all — some precious time to write.
Lumbered with her backpack, she clomped down the corridor, passing rows of closed doors on either side as she made for the only one that stood open, down at the far end. Approaching it, she could discern the faint movement of shadows and the crackle of wood fire.
She found a vast, sombre kitchen, where the floor was carved out of stone and a man was on his knees, feeding logs into a gaping fireplace.
“Hello,” she said, tapping on the door.
The man didn’t react. Jess knocked louder. The man glanced over his shoulder and looked vaguely in her direction before turning back to the fire, as if he hadn’t seen her.
Jess cleared her throat.
The man stood up, turned around, and squinted towards Jess. Even from across the kitchen, in the half-light, Jess could see how old and pale he was, and how his eyes were so drained of colour they were almost as white as his hair. She took a few steps closer.
“Hi, I’d like to check in please.”
The man kept staring, as if he couldn’t decide whether someone was there or if he was imagining it. Then his guard seemed to drop and his shoulders slacked.
“There’s stew if you’re hungry,” he said, gesturing towards a cast iron pot on the stove.
“I’m sorry, I wanted to book in advance but I couldn’t find a number to call.”
Jess raised her voice. “I said I couldn’t find a phone number!”
Another awkward pause followed as she waited for him to register her words. It was like speaking over a bad line to someone on the other side of the planet.
“No — no phone here, ” he said eventually, shaking his head.
“I’ve got my passport if you want my details.”
After another delay, the man sighed.
“Lady, you’re not checking in at the Ritz here. Give yourself the tour if you want. Bedrooms are upstairs.”
“Great. I’m so glad you’re not fully booked.”
“Nothing. I just — are there many guests?”
The man paused again, this time more as if he were considering his answer.
Jess climbed the creaking staircase; if the air seemed stale downstairs, upstairs it was unmistakably tainted with the stench of decay. She tried opening a dozen doors before finding one that wasn’t locked, halfway down the corridor. Stepping through, she fumbled for a light switch, and a sickly bulb drooping from the wall just above the switch flickered on, revealing a square room furnished only with a stained mattress on a metal bed frame, a desk and chair under a minuscule window, and — dominating the entire room — an enormous, ancient wardrobe, as big as a tree. The floorboards strained under its weight, and it loomed over the bed at a frightening angle, as if on the verge of losing its balance. Jess had never before stared in shock at a piece of furniture, but that’s what she did now. Once she was able to take her eyes off it, she located what she needed the most: a solitary power socket, tucked under the desk.
With no apparent source of heating, the room felt almost as cold as outdoors. Jess dumped her backpack on the floor, shed her coat and opened the wardrobe; it was so deep and cavernous that the room’s feeble light failed to reach the back of it. In any case, there was nothing inside apart from a pile of blankets. Jess threw one over her shoulders and slumped onto the bed. A wave of tiredness washed over her. She reclined and felt the springs of the mattress dig into her back. She could’ve fallen asleep there and then, but she was starving.
She returned to the kitchen, where the old man had already placed a steaming bowl of food and a wooden spoon on the table. She sat down and shovelled the stew into her mouth. It was acidic and gritty, which, if anything, paired well with the spoon’s coarse, splintering wood. The man was in an armchair by the fireplace, watching the flames, with a small glass in his hand and a bottle on a stool by his side. He sipped his drink. He didn’t offer any to Jess. When she finished her stew and her cheeks were flushed, she unzipped her fleece and leaned back in her chair.
“I didn’t catch your name,” she said.
“Jacob,” he replied, some time later.
Jess waited for him to ask hers. He didn’t.
He gave a slow nod, keeping his eyes fixed on the flames. Jess observed him, trying to figure out what about him was so clearly wrong. It was something more than the impairment of his senses; a sort of detachment, as if he had retreated so far into his own head that he wasn’t quite present in the room anymore.
She thanked him for the food and washed her bowl in the sink, then said goodnight and was about to leave when he called out after her:
“Let me know when you need the typewriter.”
Jess stopped in her tracks and turned back to him. “I’m sorry?”
“Breakfast is served in the Breakfast Room.”
“I’ve got a laptop. I won’t need a…”
She didn’t finish her sentence. She’d only have to repeat herself, and the old man was already miles away, lost in thought, staring into the fire.
In her room, she stripped down to her thermals, took all the blankets from the wardrobe and layered them over the mattress. She switched off the light and crawled into bed, the synthetic blankets fizzing with little blue sparks as her thermals rubbed against them, and within thirty seconds she was fast asleep in a warm cocoon of static electricity.
Two hours later, she woke up with the burning urge to use the toilet and start writing.
The bathroom was a few doors down from hers. It was freezing. Jess did her business in record time then returned to her room, where she wrapped herself in a blanket, sat at the desk, opened her laptop and wrote through the night.
When dawn broke, Jess was still writing. She was looking forward to breakfast, mostly because there was a room dedicated to it, which so far was the lodge’s only concession to being an establishment even trying to approximate a hotel. She found the room downstairs, just before the kitchen, behind a door on which a sign she hadn’t noticed the previous night read, tellingly, ‘Breakfast Room’.
There was someone else in there — a man, sitting at the table nearest the window, staring out into the dull greyness of the day. Jess said good morning but the man didn’t answer. He was old and pale.
Food was laid out on a table against the back wall. The spread comprised of a large flask of coffee, slices of rye bread, a block of hard cheese, and about twenty jars of pickles: pickled eggs, pickled onions, pickled gherkins, pickled herring, pickled cabbage, pickled garlic, pickled carrots, pickled walnuts, pickled lemons, pickled limes, pickled prunes, and several jars of what Jess could only surmise were mixed pickles.
Jess, no fan of pickles, drank coffee and ate bread and cheese, her mind a restful blank.
Before going back to her room, she went to the kitchen to find Jacob, who was in his armchair, staring into the fire, as if he hadn’t moved all night.
“Thanks for breakfast,” she said, before adding, “There’s someone in the Breakfast Room. But I thought you said I was the only guest.”
A moment passed, then Jacob replied:
“That’s Karl. He’s not a guest. He’s a resident.”
Back in her room, Jess sat at her laptop and got to work. Before she knew it, it was dark outside, the day was gone, and she had written more than in her last six months of laboured, aborted attempts at putting down words on the page. She hadn’t eaten since breakfast, but she wasn’t hungry, so she simply closed her laptop, went to bed and slept all night, without dreaming.
The next morning in the breakfast room, something strange happened. Karl was at his table, eating pickled onions, and Jess was at her table, chewing on a stale chunk of bread while planning the book she was ploughing through at an astonishing rate — an autobiographical account of her childhood on her parents’ farm — when a shiver ran down her spine. She felt she was being watched. Someone was staring at her from the doorway, she was certain of it; for a moment she froze, afraid to look, but when she turned around there was no one there. She shook it off and finished her food.
After breakfast, she went back upstairs, and as she approached her room, she heard a noise. She glanced down the corridor just in time to see a door being shut. The notion of someone spying on her might have left her more unsettled, had she not been so eager to return to her writing.
Jess settled into a routine: breakfast, work, sleep, repeat.
Life in the lodge was simple, and as Jess had hoped for, it was the perfect place to write.
The sun never broke through the opaque veil of clouds. The weather remained cold and dry. Nights were always abysmally dark, with no moon or stars in sight.
By denying Jess of any external stimuli, the lodge functioned like a sensory deprivation tank. The oppressive silence trapped her thoughts like quicksand, allowing Jess to hoard and explore every idea that passed through her head. Free from distractions, her mind raced to fill in the blanks, and words poured out of her.
Sitting under the shaft of light which squeezed through the tiny window, she spent her days at her desk, tapping away at her laptop, her work only interrupted by the occasional visit to the bathroom, on the way to which she’d often catch a glimpse of a door closing ahead of her, or hear a door being shut behind her, leading her to believe that the lodge wasn’t nearly as empty as it seemed.
At dusk, she always went to bed on an empty stomach, and every night before dozing off, as she lay in the dark, mulling over whatever story she was currently engaged with, her thoughts invariably drifted towards the enormous wardrobe, and whether that hulking, slanted monolith might topple over and crush her in her sleep. All things considered, it wouldn’t be a bad way to die; instant and painless, squashed like a bug under a shoe.
The wardrobe occupied her thoughts during the day, too. She often turned away from her laptop to stare at it, entranced by its dimensions, mesmerised by the sheen of its dark brown wood. At seven feet tall, six feet wide and four feet deep, it was too big to fit through the door, or even the corridor; it had to have been assembled inside the room. Who had built it? And why make a piece of furniture so threateningly huge? Most perplexing of all was the fact that it had no shelves, which meant that unless it was used to store something of a great height, it amounted to nothing more than a whole lot of wasted space.
Sometimes, Jess opened the wardrobe just to gaze into its chasm, wondering how it could ever be filled.
The three weeks she had planned to stay came and went.
Consumed with her work, Jess lost track of time, and weeks turned into months.
There were no mirrors in the lodge. For a while, Jess used her phone’s camera to check her appearance in the mornings, but eventually she stopped checking; keeping her phone charged was a hassle — the cold drained the battery— and also there was no one around to look good for. Her appearance meant nothing here. She pretty much stopped washing too, although she tried to enforce a modicum of discipline by showering every few weeks, whether she felt she needed to or not.
After months of living on bread and cheese, she began to work her way through the different jars of pickles. They were an acquired taste, to say the least, but once acquired, she found their sharp hit of vinegar somewhat addictive, if not entirely pleasurable. The pickled herring became her favourite, closely followed by the pickled limes. The only jar she couldn’t summon the courage to breach was the one with the handful of eggs floating about in their murky, amniotic fluid; she hated eggs with a vengeance, especially hard-boiled, so there was zero chance she’d enjoy them pickled.
Every morning at breakfast, she felt the same presence behind her, watching from the doorway. Despite the anxiety it triggered, she always forced herself to look, but there was never anyone there. Whatever it was, she learned to live with it, and over time her unease diminished, until the daily visitation became just another part of her routine.
Jess carried on writing.
In the background of her new life, where each day resembled the last, time slipped by unnoticed, and the months turned into years.
The one element that transcended the stagnancy of Jess’ surroundings was the continuous evolution of her work.
In the initial stages, the lack of access to any kind of research material was a hindrance, so Jess stuck to what she knew and wrote conservatively — romances, erotic thrillers, some light body horror. But gradually she came to recognise that facts and knowledge were the true obstacles, dead weights she had to ditch in order to find the freedom to invent whatever she pleased.
Once that threshold was crossed, her writing soared to new heights.
She wrote historical epics unconcerned with historical accuracy. She authored a string of political, legal and medical dramas unshackled from the ball and chain of relevant expertise. She penned far-reaching science-fiction wilfully dismissive of her limited grasp of science. She birthed works across the full spectrum of genres and concocted mash-ups which defied classification. Unafraid to be offensively wrong, she laughed in the face of convention and took great liberties in depicting far-flung cultures, unfamiliar religions, foreign people from all places and all walks of life — the more alien the better, as the less she knew about her subjects, the more room she had for pure, undiluted creation.
With no holds barred on the substance of her writing, she delighted in experimenting on the form, too. She played with structure, toyed with language, flirted with rhyme, fooled around with grammar, cheated on spelling, disrespected punctuation, broke up and got back together with paragraphing; she tried her hand at every style that took her fancy, with no measure of success other than the act of completion itself, and, without fail, she completed every single piece of work she started.
The lodge was good to Jess. The thought of leaving never crossed her mind.
Time flowed, not so much as a river, more as a gushing torrent; the dam had burst, her head was inundated with ideas, each one of them worth pursuing.
Giddy with her new-found, God-like powers, Jess hardly registered when the years turned into the first decade.
The first casualty of time was the laptop. Word-processing was the only task required of it, but it struggled nonetheless and slowed to a crawl, often pausing for lengthy standstills until it felt sufficiently rested to carry on. The hard drive wheezed and rasped as if suffering a permanent asthma attack, while the cooling fan, working overtime to keep the whole thing from burning up, blasted enough hot air to create a cozy pocket of heat around the desk.
Not long after Jess had typed thirty million words, the keyboard’s backlight died, and some of the keys became unreliable, responding only to insistent long-presses, impatient probings or furious stabbings. The space bar only complied if struck with some force on the left — on the right, it would jam and send the cursor racing down the page.
The only key showing no sign of wear-and-tear was the Delete key: Jess didn’t delete, edit, amend, correct, reread, rewrite, reconsider, rework, rearrange or rethink anything. Once a word was on the page, it was time to write the next word, and time only moved forwards.
One morning, as Jess was typing the final paragraph of a post-apocalyptic coming-of-age trilogy set in rural China, the A key popped out of the keyboard. Jess tried to slot it back in, but its hinge clips had snapped, so she tossed the key aside and carried on working. Two months later, the R jumped ship, soon followed by the S, the T, the H and the E. Eventually, only the alphabet’s most exotic letters remained in place, but, one by one, each of them gave up the ghost. It didn’t matter; while Jess hadn’t been able to touch-type when she’d first arrived, by the time every letter had deserted the keyboard, she hadn’t looked at it in years. Her eyes were always glued to the screen, leaving her fingers to do their job unsupervised and with perfect accuracy.
She kept using the laptop, working around its ailments, until the day it refused to power on altogether. She slid it under the bed, and, without thinking twice, marched downstairs, entered the kitchen, and asked Jacob for the typewriter.
“It’s in the Paper Room,” he said.
Jacob led Jess down the corridor, to the room next to the Breakfast Room. On the door was a sign that said ‘Paper Room’, which Jess hadn’t noticed before.
Inside, reams of blank paper were stacked against all four walls, six feet high and three columns deep. More columns formed a mound equally tall in the centre of the room, with just enough free space around it to allow for a narrow passageway. Beyond the central mound poked the top of an enormous wardrobe. There was enough paper in the room for a number of monkeys on a number of typewriters to have a decent go at bashing out, at the very least, the entire lesser works of William Shakespeare.
“We’re running low,” Jacob said, “but more will be delivered.”
Jess wasn’t taking much notice. She was too busy working out the start of her next story. She stayed by the door as Jacob circled the mound and disappeared behind it. The wardrobe opened and closed, then Jacob reappeared with an old typewriter and a box of ink ribbons. She took them from him, grabbed as many reams of paper as she could carry, then returned to her room.
The typewriter was a relic from a bygone age, a blunt, mechanical instrument which took some taming, but Jess relished the chance to make a new friend. She felt a tingle of excitement every time she rolled a blank page around the platen, and having spent years working in silence, she greedily absorbed the sounds and rhythms that it brought to her life: the weighty clunk of the hammers striking the page, the bright ping of the margin bell, the whir of the carriage sliding on its rails. An inanimate object at rest, it came alive under her touch, responding to a transfer of energy in ways her laptop didn’t; Jess stroked it, fed it, and cared for it, like a pet.
And it did something else her laptop couldn’t do: it gave her writing a whole new dimension, literally so. When her first manuscript was finished, Jess looked at the stack of pages on her desk and was hit with the realisation that her work now inhabited the physical space. As such, it would need to be stored somewhere.
Jess turned to the wardrobe; it stared back, serene, impassive. The time had come to reward its patience.
Subconsciously, Jess managed to keep certain deep-seated concerns at bay and ignore the wider consequences of having placed her creative needs above everything else. But the reality of her selfishness became harder and harder to ignore, and there came a point where making up stories wasn’t good enough anymore; she had to confront the pain she had caused to the people she loved.
She could barely remember her husband’s face. She imagined his ordeal following her disappearance — the anguish, the unanswerable questions, the police’s involvement and the drawn-out investigation which would’ve turned up no results, no satisfying conclusion. She wondered how long he had waited before moving on, before starting afresh with someone else, before having the children he’d always wanted, the children she had persistently refused him because she’d never felt ready. She wondered if he still thought of her, or if he’d been lucky enough to succeed, with time, in erasing her from his life without a trace.
But above all, Jess thought of her parents. Unlike her husband, they wouldn’t have harboured hopes of moving on; she had deprived them of their only child, an act so unforgivable that she punished herself again and again by assimilating their pain until it became hers — her burden, her cross to bear. She delved into their trauma. She immersed herself in the devastating grief which had surely sent them to an early grave. Through her writing, she told them all the things she never said when she had the chance, because although she loved her parents, she had committed the sin so many children are guilty of: she had taken them for granted. Maybe it could even be said that she had never truly got to know them. The only saving grace in their agony — and hers — was that, by now, they’d both be long dead. Their nightmare would be over.
Jess inflicted all this pain on herself because she believed it was the least she deserved, but there was another reason, one she might have felt less inclined to admit to: it made for great writing material.
Her work matured and flourished, gaining what she perceived as gravitas and sophistication as she wrote book after book fuelled by her pain and the pain of others; this was the fleshy, succulent meat many writers never got to taste, and Jess was ravenous. She sunk her teeth into it, asked for more, ate it all up, licked her fingers, and sucked on the bones until they were clean dry.
The passage of time took its indiscriminate toll on all that it steamrolled over, and Jess, as immune to her own mortality as her youth had tricked her into believing she was, was no exception.
If the sight of her emaciated body and the catalog of aches and pains afflicting it were anything to go by, her appalling diet, lack of exposure to sunlight and total absence of exercise had ganged up on her to engineer a disastrous ageing process.
Sitting hunched at her desk had ruined her posture. When she was on her feet, violent spasms in her lower back prevented her from standing straight. Her legs had dwindled to a loose arrangement of brittle osseous matter, atrophied muscles and translucent skin riddled with broken veins; tackling the stairs was an increasingly daunting challenge which demanded more time and effort by the day. Her hands were crippled with arthritis, forcing her to type only with two gnarled index fingers. Abscesses throbbed in her gums, and she could wriggle several of her rotting teeth with her tongue; for that reason, she avoided the bread and cheese, restricting herself to the spongy textures of the various pickles. Her vision, once a razor-sharp asset, had deteriorated to the point where anything beyond arm’s reach was a blur. Even her hearing, sheltered from noise in the monastic silence of the lodge, felt muted, as if she had cotton wool stuffed in her ears.
For the first few decades, Jess had written constantly, but with the onset of old age, she spent more and more time not writing. Days, weeks, sometimes months on end slumped in her chair, gazing up at the window, or lying in bed, staring at the wardrobe, wondering if she could hear a distant bell ringing in the lodge or if she was imagining it; great swathes of time doing nothing, not even thinking, barely existing.
On occasions, she went to her bedroom door, cracked it open, and stood there, hoping to spy on a resident walking past, but when footsteps approached she always shut the door before seeing anyone and — crucially — before being seen.
Thoughts of leaving the lodge bubbled to the surface now and then, but Jess had left it too late. She was too old. She would never have the strength to make it down the mountain alive.
She felt more and more alone, locked away in her own head, with no hope of ever finding a way out.
The unseen presence in the Breakfast Room was her only comfort, the only sign, as intangible as it was, that she wasn’t dead yet; someone or something was paying her attention, even if for a fleeting moment, which was proof enough that on some level she hadn’t fully ceased to exist.
Every morning when she turned to face the doorway, she wanted to speak, but addressing someone who wasn’t there was something an insane person would do, and Jess refused to acknowledge that her mind was broken.
So she held off. She formulated words in her head but never spoke them out loud.
Until one day, after years of silence, years of having not spoken a single word to anyone, not even to herself, she turned around and could hold off no longer.
“I know you’re there,” she said, at the empty space in the doorway.
At his table, Karl was immobile, his vacant gaze fixed into the daylight pressing hard against the window.
Jess spoke again.
“I can’t see you, but I know you’re there.”
A moment later, the presence seemed to vanish, as it always did.
Jess turned back to her table and carried on eating.
Afterwards, she returned to her room and sat all day at her desk, incapable of doing any work, feeling more numb than ever, but when night fell, she did something she hadn’t done since her first night in the lodge, all those years ago: she stayed up and wrote until dawn.
That night, she completed her final piece of work.
When she was done, she placed the manuscript in the wardrobe, then went to lie down and closed her eyes, just for a minute.
Jess woke up. She hadn’t meant to fall asleep. She felt dizzy and nauseous. When it passed, she got to her feet and breathed in deeply. She stretched. Her back didn’t hurt so much. Her left shoulder felt a bit sore — maybe a repetitive strain injury of some kind, a symptom of having spent decades using that same arm to push the typewriter’s carriage — but other than that she felt fine. She peered out of the window; the day seemed brighter than usual, as if the clouds had finally parted.
Then it dawned on her: she was done with writing.
Or, writing was done with her.
Either way, it was out of her system, and her mind was now flooded with thoughts she had repressed for as long as she could remember.
Her feelings towards the lodge had undergone a drastic reversal: yesterday she would’ve called it home; today it was a prison she had to escape. She couldn’t begin to fathom what had possessed her to stay all this time, how she had willingly let her entire life pass her by, with nothing to show for it other than a stream of words on paper.
Maybe she was fooling herself, but she felt strong enough to attempt the journey back to civilisation. Whatever remained of her life would not be spent in the lodge: she would leave or die trying.
Jess opened the wardrobe.
It was full to the brim. Hundreds of thousands of pages, all piled up in closely-packed columns stretching right to the very top.
She remembered placing her first manuscript on the bottom when the wardrobe was still empty, then the second one next to it, and so on until there was no more floor space to keep them separate and she had to start stacking them up on top of each other. Inch by inch, her work had swelled into this mass of paper which now towered over her, on the brink of collapse, offering no indication of where one book ended and another began.
Carrying it all down the mountain was out of the question, but Jess had no intention to do so anyway. Most of the work in the wardrobe was so fresh in her mind that she could’ve recited entire books word for word, as if the typewriter had etched them into her soul. She didn’t have the slightest desire to revisit any of it. No, of all the novels, novellas, essays, poems and short stories she had written, the only ones she was curious about were those she had the least recollection of writing: her earliest work, trapped in her dead laptop gathering dust under the bed. What it contained belonged to another era, and Jess wondered if it had the capacity to make her feel young again, which, at this late stage in her life, was all she really wanted.
Hoping the laptop’s data was salvageable, she took a gamble, but to hedge her bets, she decided to take something else with her, too. She dragged the chair to the wardrobe, climbed onto it and stood on tiptoe to grab a large block of pages from the top: her last manuscript, plus what she estimated to be another couple of books’ worth of writing.
Jess closed the wardrobe, packed her bag and went downstairs to tell Jacob she was leaving.
She took a few steps into the kitchen and immediately changed her mind — not about leaving, but about telling him. As always, Jacob was slouched in his tattered armchair and didn’t hear her coming in. The fire was out: he was staring dead-eyed at a pile of ashes. Jess felt a mixture of intense pity and disgust. She would rather make a quiet exit than endure another protracted interaction with this shell of a man. Also, there was the risk he might bring up the issue of the astronomical bill she’d have to settle. She took no pleasure in stiffing him, but, she reasoned, money couldn’t possibly be worth much up here, in a place where time was the only currency, of which she had paid more than her fair share.
She placed what little cash she had on the table and slipped out of the kitchen, leaving Jacob none the wiser.
As she walked down the corridor, she realised that, in her haste, she was forgetting to bring food for her journey. The few energy bars at the bottom of her bag would be decades past their expiration date: she should stock up on bread and cheese from the Breakfast Room.
Jess entered and froze. At the table where she always sat, someone was in her seat: an old woman, rake-thin, hunched over her plate. Jess’ stomach contracted as she stared at the back of the woman’s head, at her limp, grey hair clumped in greasy strands, at the patches of bald scalp showing underneath, at the bumps of her crooked spine poking out from under her threadbare, filthy cardigan. The woman was about to bring something to her mouth — a pickled lime — when she froze, too, and raised her head from her plate. She turned around, her face gaunt and sallow, her eyes glazed over with cataracts, and looking vaguely towards Jess, she croaked:
“I know you’re there.”
Jess backed away. Bile shot into her throat, acrid and burning.
“I can’t see you, but I know you’re there.”
Jess choked and tripped over herself as she ran down the corridor and bolted out of the lodge, where she sank to her knees and vomited on the pebbles. She heaved, her eyes watering, her whole body shaking and breaking into a cold sweat. When the convulsions subsided to a fitful hiccup, she picked herself up, and without looking back staggered across the basin, scaled the ridge and disappeared over the crest, her footsteps fading away until the mountain was as still and silent as it ever was.
In the Breakfast Room, Jess finished her plate of limes. As she stared into her empty plate for what seemed like an eternity, the void inside her tore open a little more, followed by a nagging need to try filling it with something new.
She got to her feet, shuffled over to the table at the back, and plunged her bony hand in vinegar to reach an egg at the bottom of the jar.