April 7, 2017

Steam Room

Duanphen was thinking of hot Thai stew with plenty of garlic. It was edging past the nine-hour mark of soapy water scouring and sore fingers. Her throat pinged as she pictured her two babies in Bang Kapi, on the outskirts of the city. So far away from mama. She’d probably watch an episode of ‘Rak Rae’, her favourite Thai soap opera.

She stood by the pool on the 38th floor of the ‘Ideo Z’ tower in Ekkamai, central Bangkok. A shiny monolith of a residential tower with an incomprehensible design. Her one-year contract renewal was coming up in eleven days. She was content with her performance. The manager hadn’t been as gruff with her like the others.

She had scrubbed the upper floors with a hint of extra care than in the preceding weeks. Her pseudo-leather wrist watch showed 3:02 pm. Washing the steam room and adjacent bathrooms was all that was left for the day. In an hour she’d be on the bus home.

She filled a bucket, humming the notes to that radio song, and carried it to the changing room.

A few of the clean towels had gone missing, and she’d have to report that on her way out. As she sloshed out a mop to the floor, she glanced over at the glass door of the steam room. Two pronounced trails of maroon droplets clung to the inside of the glass.

‘Re-tiling? I wasn’t aware of management getting in the handyman today.’

She leaned the mop against the wall, grabbed the silver designer door handle and pulled it slowly. There was the smell of rust, like the galvanized roof of her childhood home after the rain. The small room was dark, but something had caused a mess in there. She flicked the light switch before peering back in. Her heart jumped as she took in the scene.

Her cracked scream echoed out but quickly faded into the oblivious Bangkok bustle.

Freelance journalist Paul Lively closed his laptop, breathed in deeply and sighed. His face felt puffy and fatigued. ‘Uhhh. One Singha beer last night was enough.’

He had a wiry build, a back hunched from years of desk work, and thick mahogany hair cut short at the back and sides. Tortoiseshell glasses with large rims without prescription rested on a bony, foreign nose. This was his way of looking more intelligent than he was, and to get looks from the cuter ‘Hi-So’ Thai girls at the cafes.

He had spent the morning working from his condo – a desk next to an unmade double bed in room 153 on the 21st floor of Ideo Z…At least trying to work. He had a deadline to deal with before the end of the week, and it was already Thursday. His current piece, a prospective essay for ‘The Environmentalist,’ on what the Thai authorities were doing in the face of climate change, was excruciating.

He popped his spine back against his chair and let his eyes rest on the rambling city through the specked balcony window. Dirty air hung low in a straight line, though the sun bore down hard as it did in Thailand, accentuating the concrete edges and glinting steel slivers of a metropolis in motion. His watch said 11:58 am.

‘Time for a swim.’ He croaked to himself, standing up quickly and pushing back his chair.

One of the perks of working at the tower was the pool and spa facility on the top floor. Back in Toronto, for the price of this place, he’d get a studio and the view of a parking lot. Here, he felt like a King.

He put on a pair of trunks and pulled on a once-used ‘Keep Calm and use a Tuk Tuk’ t-shirt he picked up on a recent foray to Pratunam market.

Turning back from a quick face blitz of cool but not cold water, he saw that much of the powder blue sky had turned a dramatic patchy grey. Enormous cumulonimbus clouds were forming in the distance.

‘That was quick. How did the heck did that happen?’ He hurried to grab his keys and an unread month-old National Geographic. Thailand was known for its short-notice downpours, but not at this time of the year.

He locked the door, and his heel knocked into something hard. A block of ice the size of a school book slid into another piece of a similar size. Chunks were strewn across the corridor, many sitting in small puddles. He stood stiffly to register the scene for a moment.

‘The hell? Did the air conditioning freeze over or something?’

He tapped his ID card as he waited for the lift. An icy draught raised the hairs on arms that refused to tan. ‘Must get this reported as soon as I’m done.’

The doors opened, and the woman on the recording said it was the 37th floor in a mocking tone. The scene through the window showed swirling ashen clouds. It felt like dusk, yet it was only noon.

Stepping forward, he grimaced as his foot touched water. The bone white polished floor had been replaced by sky reflected in a wavering shallow pool. Liquid submerged the sole of his flip-flop entirely.

‘Christ, what is going on?’ He splashed around the corner and could see water trickling down the six steps that led up to the outdoor swimming pool.

He forced the door open against the resistance of the inundation. The water level in the pool had risen above the edges, though it wasn’t raining, and now covered the full deck.

He remembered the hotel after a tropical storm in Barbados, on vacation when he was nine. The storm had abated, leaving branches and leaves in the pool. He did it then, and he could swim in this now.

‘Screw it.’ He threw his things on a uniquely-shaped deckchair, held his nose and jumped in. The hum of the city became bubbles popping, and there was a fizz of salt on his tongue.

He came up, then dipped below and swam with his eyes open for a length. Perhaps it would help him sleep that night. He watched his arms stretch out in front – white smears on dark teal.

‘Something must have gone very wrong with the water system today.’

He let himself float still for a minute, face up; eyes burning; his body star-shaped. Fleetingly, his mind went to an immense wintry ocean. An angry Leviathan spiraling upwards marked the halfway point between his tiny drifting form, and the unfathomable sea floor miles below. He felt so far from anywhere.

He shivered and found a current gently tugging him to the edge.

‘This mess is gonna piss off management.’ He heaved himself out on a ladder that squeaked. ‘I could use a steam though.’

The sky was darker still. Huge raindrops were firing indiscriminately from the heavens. Lights were already coming on all over the city. A silent double flash lit the horizon, silhouetting a science fiction skyline. He walked barefoot over to the changing rooms and flicked the ‘Steam ON’ switch, turning the thermostat to 42.

He grabbed four towels from the rack to stave off the flow into the building. A delayed rumble coursed above as if to say, ‘we’re in charge now.’

He stood with a towel around his neck beneath the overhang. ‘Where is everyone?’ He thought. Dense rain stirred the surface, transforming not just the pool, but the entire outdoor deck to bouncing static. He held out an arm and imagined his skin hissing and melting under the fury of diluted acid.

Abruptly, there was a bigger splash that formed a white foamy sphere at the far end of the pool. Then up bobbed something dark. Seconds later, there was another one. Then more in greater frequency. Inky globules floated.

With a louder smack, one such missile landed right next to Paul’s foot. A fat toad. It’s body split along its back, and some of its oily innards were streaming out.

‘Afff!…’ He recoiled. ‘It’s raining fucking frogs!’

Paul smoothed back the wet hair from his forehead in the mirror. His reflection possessed more vitality than he knew he had; the picture more lucid than what was real. An alternate version of himself seemed to stare back at him. He shook his head slowly and deliberately as though sharing a private joke about how peculiar things had become, but more than that, to see if his doppelganger would do the same.

He pulled open the steam room door. Steam billowed out, and he stepped inside. He had to cough as thick, musty air caught his lungs. It took a few seconds to make out what was in front of him. A shadowy outline. Some large mound was there.

The view cleared, and Paul barked a short yell.

On the bench was seated – quite still – a damp creature. An adult polar bear. Spiked, matted fur bristled from a shrunken body, like a big dog after a bath. Ivory claws poked out from hairy clumps. The animal looked oddly comical, though quite forlorn, panting out puffs of recycled steam in quick yet measured bursts. Nevertheless, it looked massive on the white-tiled bench in the cramped enclosure.

Paul stood frozen and his sinuses throbbed. The bear turned its head slowly, sniffing the air between short breaths. The walls closed in.

It looked straight at him with eyes as black as coal and licked its lips.

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Fiction, Micro Fiction, Short Story

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