Once upon a time, there existed a hotel. To find it, one had to first look for the rainbow halo in the fog. Then, they would happen upon a very modest hotel, not that much bigger than a pair of lovers' picnic blanket, with four triangular walls woven from pure white polyester. The walls merged at the top to form a dome, and on one of them was the entrance, a deep frown illustrated by a zipper.
(Yes, this is a tent.)
The interior of this hotel was arranged to create a comfortable atmosphere. Sewn to the walls was a string of pin-sized light bulbs, each glowing a hue different from the one beside it. They were bright enough to enlighten the hotel, but not too much lest the tenants be blinded. To ensure utmost comfort, all furnishings below the lights were knitted and crocheted using the softest sheep wool.
(Yes, this tent is full of knitted clothing, crocheted duvets, and yarn.)
The one to knit and crochet all those furnishings was none other than the owner of this fine establishment, Takisha. Incidentally, she was also the only person manning the hotel. Most days, Takisha can be seen, garbed in every shade of white, knitting or crocheting more furniture to ball up against the wall amongst the other stacks and piles of furniture. Tonight, she can be seen balled up against the wall amongst the hotel's stacks and piles of furniture, garbed in every shade of white.
"Meow." That was the first word she uttered since entering the hotel. "Meow." Takisha curled deeper, her dark countenance hidden by her knees. "Meeee-owww."
Takisha jolted, her foetal position unfolding like a birthday card. A short, white urn fell out of her arms as she regarded, with bulging eyes, the silhouette before her that resembled a massive bulldog sitting outside the hotel, raring to tear down the door.
"Wait." Takisha squinted at the bulldog. "You haven't got any ears." She leaned across the floor, her hand reaching for the zip. In one swift pull, the hotel was open for business.
The door crumpled to the floor, revealing the owner of that silhouette. A fearsome bulldog it was not, but actually one of Takisha's regulars—Kontar, who was practically a silhouette with his pure black attire and equally dark skin. He had come, on one knee, bearing on his arm the fee for a night in her hotel.
Takisha graciously welcomed her guest. "I thought you were a dog."
Kontar's response was just as gracious. "I thought you were a cat."
(Yes, they were anything but gracious.)
Takisha hissed before recoiling from the doorway as if she was a rubber band that had reached the end of its elasticity. At the same time, Kontar entered the hotel, walking with his knees. He stayed near the entrance, valiantly holding back the fog that desperately wanted to intrude the hotel while waiting patiently for Takisha to finish rummaging through the furniture.
"Hurry the fuck up," said Kontar with chattering teeth. "My ass is about to turn into ice!"
(Yes, impatience makes him overexaggerate.)
"Hah!" Takisha unearthed her pink receptionist's desk from a mountain of yarn. "That'd be a sight to behold." Once its legs were unbent, the desk was set between the manager and her customer.
Kontar wasted no time laying his room fees unto the desk. Immediately afterwards, he whipped around and shut the door, the zipper's teeth snipping to wisps the fog that breached the hotel.
Takisha scrutinized the fees. "Tomato soup ramen." She drummed her fingers on the desk. "You made this last month."
"Got a problem with that?" questioned Kontar as he dragged himself across the silky-smooth floor, on his knees, closer to the desk.
Takisha rolled her eyes, tilting her head simultaneously. "You know," she began, while gazing at her hair, "just because I'm not immediately singing praise about your food, it doesn't mean I hate it." She brushed her fingers through her long black curls, bundling half of it. "And I'm always thankful for the meals you cook for me." She tied the bundle beside her neck using a white, crocheted hair tie.
(Yes, she makes her own scrunchies too.)
Of course, when faced with such appreciation, Kontar had to thank Takisha.
"Hmph," he said, after averting his gaze. Perhaps he could not bear the weight of Takisha's grace, for his head was bowed and all he could do after thanking her was watch his legs switch from kneeling to sitting cross-legged.
(Yes, he is acting indifferent.)
"Having said that," Takisha added, tying her second bundle, "the last time you cooked tomato soup ramen, it was pretty sour." She smirked while fondling the second bundle. "And I'd be lying if I said I was looking forward to eating it again."
Those words lifted the weight off Kontar, allowing him to show his face. His eyes were bulging, and he had a tight-lipped frown so deep, he truly resembled a bulldog. Takisha acknowledged his reaction with a cat-like grin.
(Yes, he felt insulted, and yes, that was her intention.)
"Nevertheless, itadakimasu," said Takisha, finalising the transaction. The receptionist desk was now a dining table carrying two black ceramic bowls filled with steaming reddish liquid and a crispy cutlet each. "Chopsticks?"
Kontar grabbed his left sleeve. It was sealed by a zip, which its wearer bit with his teeth to pull open. When aimed at the floor, a walkie-talkie and a rolled-up hand towel fell out. Kontar placed the towel on the table and the walkie-talkie back inside his sleeve.
Takisha unveiled two pairs of chopsticks within the plaid cloth. "Thank you."
Kontar, too, was carrying out his own unveilings. He unveiled his right forearm by biting the hem of his sleeve and dragging it to his elbow. Next, he unveiled his face by pulling down his hood. His hood then drew back his curly black hair, unveiling four miniscule dents on his forehead which did not go unnoticed by Takisha as she blew the steam off her first pinch of noodles.
"What did you say to Thitiporn this time?" she inquired.
(Yes, that is pronounced 'Ti-dti-pohn'.)
"Sure," Kontar said loudly, stabbing his chopsticks into his cutlet, "take her side, even though I'm the one with wounds." He lifted the cutlet to his mouth and devoured a third of it, unveiling the chicken inside. "How the fuck did you even know it was her?"
"Based on what the girls tell me, anytime you get a strange injury, it's a hundred percent caused by Thitiporn, and that happens because you've never been anything but rude to her, so obviously I'm on her side," said Takisha, and she repeated her query. "What did you say to her this time?"
Once he had consumed enough ramen and meat to make his cheeks bulge, Kontar answered Takisha, "I said, 'Quit making those forks fuck'." He swallowed. His cheeks reverted to being simply pudgy. "And 'Move'."
"Yeah, and then she fucking forked me just because I wanted her ass off the utensils drawer."
"Did you tell her that was the reason you needed her to move?"
Kontar maintained eye contact for a moment, looked away the next, and finally lifted his bowl to cover his face, noisily gulping down the broth.
(Yes, he realized his mistake.)
"No wonder she forked you." Takisha closed her mouth around the tip of her chopsticks, drawing in the steam-less noodles. She managed to lift out the ends before pausing to stare at her bowl. After blinking slowly once, Takisha slurped up the rest of her noodles. "You added sugar this time."
"You made an ugly face last time," replied Kontar as he lowered to the table an empty bowl. "Why didn't you say anything before? I could've brought you sugar or honey."
Takisha quirked an eyebrow. "You wouldn't get pissed off if I made requests?"
Kontar's mouth promptly opened to shape his answer, his eyes and nostrils flaring simultaneously, instantaneously. Then, his lips haltingly formed a circle that shrank gradually as his gaze fell diagonally at a similar pace. In the span of a moment, his mouth shut. To the message Kontar was trying to convey, Takisha lowered her quirked eyebrow until it was level with the other.
Takisha sighed while swirling her chopsticks in her bowl. "You wanna know why I was meowing earlier?"
Kontar's eyes and nostrils flared again. "No."
"I was relieving stress." Takisha lifted her chopsticks, which had transformed into a honey dipper thanks to the noodles encasing the tips. "Kinda like how some people like to scream and rage."
"That's a stupid way to do it."
"As opposed to lashing out at every given opportunity?"
(Yes, he has anger issues.)
Kontar silently watched Takisha close her mouth over her lump of noodles, sliding it off her chopsticks as though it was a cheap lollipop. As the guest had nothing else to say, dinner resumed in silence.
Once both bowls were empty, they became a pair of washbowls on a shared countertop. A pitcher sat in a corner of the hotel, kept warm by the plush furnishings until Takisha lifted it onto the countertop.
"Need a hand?" offered Takisha, to her guest whose sleeve's zip was jammed. "Wait, was that ableist?"
"No," answered Kontar. There was a sharp crack! and he spat out a zip's pull. "That wasn't ableist."
(Yes, he is missing a left arm.)
"Gimme your hoodie," Takisha instructed. She reached backwards into the furniture and her hands returned grasping a hooded cardigan as dark as coal. "And you can wear this in the meantime."
Kontar's right sleeve flailed about wildly before his hand jutted out of his jacket's neck. Gripping the edge, Kontar roughly yanked his jacket off his person, revealing the grey tank top underneath. After jostling the jacket by its left sleeve until a walkie-talkie and a narrow pouch dropped out its bottom, Kontar relinquished his jacket to Takisha.
"Don't lob it," said Takisha, once the jacket was in her hands. "But since you did, so will I."
A good hostess she was, Takisha made sure Kontar received the cardigan with his head. As soon as he pulled it on, Kontar told Takisha what he thought of her gift that had wide armholes, a pocket at the tummy and two zips on the left sleeve—one shutting the hole, another spanning the forearm.
"I already have a hoodie. Make something for Riyazat. He's shaking like a leaf every time we go scavenging."
"Get me his measurements first," replied Takisha, placing Kontar's jacket, folded, next to her.
Kontar glared at his pouch, shaking it roughly. "Get them yourself!" Out fell a child-sized toothbrush from the shaken pouch. After that came a tube of toothpaste as short as a thumb and as thin as a stick of gum.
Takisha positioned the pitcher beside her washbowl. "The opportunity never arises." At the push of a button, warm water trickled into her palm, which she then used to wash her mouth.
(Yes, that is an electric water dispenser.)
Kontar snorted. At the same time, he squirted a dollop of peppermint toothpaste across the thistles of his charcoal toothbrush that balanced precariously on the edge of his bowl. "Well, duh."
Takisha watched Kontar as she prepared her own toothbrush. "What?"
"Obviously you never have a chance to talk to him. You're always in here."
"Not always. I'm not here during missions. And if we didn't have to travel so far from home—I mean, HQ, I'd be in the same bedroom as you and the others right now."
"Yeah, and as soon as that's over, you're in this tent, or setting it up faster than Riyazat can say 'Taj'."
(Yes, she is a recluse.)
Takisha had nothing to say for she had a toothbrush in her mouth, and soon did Kontar, and thus, the conversation was put on hold while the two occupants of the hotel cleaned their teeth, and it remained on hold when they spat out the toothpaste, rinsed their mouths, and evicted the washbowls from the building. Once Kontar laid his head onto a pillow improvised from the hotel's furnishings, and Takisha had found her sewing scissors, the conversation recommenced.
"Is this trash?" Kontar inquired, holding on his fingertips a crumpled piece of black paper.
Takisha, after splaying her guest's jacket across the sewing counter that one moment ago was a lavabo, took the crumple into her hand. With her thumb, she smoothed out the creases, revealing a diagram of the hotel's staff, consisting of three members, two of which had recently resigned. It was illustrated with curves and corners. The first curve was red, with 'YK' written beside it. A second curve reflected the first, representing 'YS' in yellow. Under the two curves was a white corner— 'TKS'.
(Yes, that is a three-coloured heart doodle signifying friendship between three individuals.)
"It's not," stated Takisha, rightfully pasting the staff chart under the lights, where it will be illuminated for all to see. After that, she began snipping into the jacket. "Yee-Kei and Yasmin came by again."
(Yes, those are YK and YS's full names.)
Kontar snored loudly.
When the snipping stopped, Takisha had in her hand a broken zipper. "They thought you and I were dating."
Kontar choked. He rolled over and sat up. "What the fuck?"
"Don't worry, I told them no." Takisha incised the sleeve vertically. "But I get why they think that. Every day, you make me breakfast, lunch and dinner, and you'd hang out with me even when we're not eating. You don't do that with the others."
"My cooking for you is just rent to sleep here," Kontar clarified, "because—"
"I'm the 'least fucking annoying person alive'." Takisha set aside the scissors, swapping them for a spool of thread. "I know. You don't have to be so defensive though," she added with a chuckle. "Anyway, Yee-Kei and Yasmin were here for the key to your heart."
"No," Kontar moaned as he laid down again. "Tell them to fuck off."
"Why should I? You already do that. Frequently." Takisha lisped her next words because her teeth were clamped onto the end of the black thread whose spool she was unwinding. "And despite that, they can see the good in you and want to be your friends."
Kontar laid his forearm over his eyes. "This is all your fault. Cuz' of whatever shit you said to them, those girls keep harassing me, trying to drag me into their dumb games to—" He wiggled his fingers "— 'blow off steam'. Today, they tried to get me to help them do those dumbass 'popping-cooking' things, or whatever they were called. Was that your advice too?"
(Yes, Kracie Popin' Cookin' products were involved.)
"No, I never told them to do that," said Takisha, closing one eye as she started to lower a needle onto the thread. "In fact, they never ask me for advice about how to deal with you. I figured they were just bugging you for fun, since they get super excited telling me about it." She successfully caught the thread within the needle's hole. "Although, I will admit that I might've inspired them to try un-grouching you."
"The fuck did you say to them?"
"It was during the time Yee-Kei found out you've been frequenting my tent for naps," Takisha began, and immediately paused to snap a length of thread using her canines. "She wanted to know if I was okay with our arrangement and was worried you were bothering me. I told her everything was alright, but she didn't believe me, which isn't surprising since you're such an unsociable and unlikable bitch." Another pause to knot the thread's ends.
Kontar, absolutely enraptured by Takisha's story, sat up for a closer hear. "Why the fuck did you stop? Continue!"
"One second," replied Takisha, engrossed in her task of tying together three knots on a single thread. She broke her promise by continuing her narration seven seconds later. "To make her feel better, I said you weren't a bad person. You were probably just really mad and didn't know how to be happy, or forgot how to, and that made Yee-Kei sad. She asked if there was anything that could make you happy. I didn't know. All I knew was you can't be mad if you weren't awake to be angered, and I'm glad to give you the space to sleep unfettered, because you're always complaining about everyone else bugging you awake." She aligned a new zipper within the sleeve hole. "But I guess Yee-Kei wanted to you to be not mad even when you're awake."
Kontar gaped at her, eyes, nostrils and mouth flaring this time. "Don't do that."
Takisha raised her head. "Do what?"
"Don't guess what my problem is like you know me."
"Um, I don't? Know you? That's why I'm guessing?"
"Yeah, but it is none of your business what my problems might be!" Kontar swatted the air every one or two words he uttered. "And thanks to you, people are conspiring to turn me into sunshine and rainbows. If I pulled the same shit on you," he said while pointing at Takisha, "you'd hate it too."
Although it was rude to point at others, Takisha did not reprimand Kontar, only calmly lowered the jacket. "Can't see that happening. Don't think I'm doing anything that makes people wonder what's wrong with me."
Kontar's eyes widened further. "Excuse me? Alright, fuck it." He rescinded his accusing finger to form a fist. "I really didn't want to talk about this because I thought it was fucking dumb and none of my business, but here's the damn list of things you do that rub people the wrong way."
Takisha was intrigued. "Huh," she uttered tonelessly while looking at the needle pinned into Kontar's jacket.
(Yes, she is acting indifferent.)
Kontar straightened his back, giving himself the height to loom over Takisha. "You're so quick to get back inside your tent, it's as though being outside is the worst thing in the world for you, and that's not the only evidence! You put on this sour-ass look—" For a split second, emotion left Kontar's face, his eyebrows drew closer, and the edges of his lips curved down slightly "—every time you're outside, even before bed! And that sucks because you're so fucking tall and can you imagine how it feels to have someone looking down at you with that kind of face? It's not fun. It's actually really fucking creepy!"
Takisha listened to Kontar with rapt attention. Her eyelids were half-closed as she rolled the big knot at the end of her thread between her forefinger and thumb. "Huh."
"I mean, I'm not scared by you or anything," said Kontar. His gaze wandered and his posture slackened, albeit for a short moment. He was quick to revert to his initial position. "And your girls think there's nothing wrong with you, but everyone else has a problem. They think you have a problem with being around them."
Kontar's words struck Takisha's heart repeatedly, just like how she was striking at the thread as if it was a dull harp. Her only music was her voice, and it sounded just as dull.
Kontar's gaze wandered again when he said, "And the one who says you've got the biggest problem being around with, is Riyazat." He paused, and so did his eyes, on Takisha, who was still striking the thread. Again, Kontar averted his gaze. "Fuck, I guess we're really doing this," he mumbled. After reconnecting his gaze with Takisha, he spoke a little louder. "Apparently, you seriously fucking hate him. What've you got to say to that?"
Takisha responded by releasing the thread and sitting up, instantly towering over Kontar. She watched him intently, wordlessly, momentarily, before abruptly laying back on her furnishings. At last, she spoke.
Kontar heaved a rough and lengthy sigh, his posture deflating alongside his lungs. "Would you fucking please elaborate on that? And don't answer 'huh'! Or 'no'! I swear to God, I will fucking explode if you give me another one-word answer!"
(Yes, he was attempting to get a rise out of her.)
"Then explode," replied Takisha, with a deep, emotionless voice. Her eyebrows were drawn close, and the corners of her lips were slightly curved down. "Let it all out and go to sleep."
(Yes, she did not appreciate his attempt.)
Kontar slammed his fist on the sewing counter. The impact was muffled by his jacket. "That's what the questions were for!" On the same fist he pressed his forehead and moaned. "Ki-Hwan warned me about this."
"He told me how conversations between you and Riyazat went—short or salty."
"See? That's short."
"What else do you want me to say?"
"And there's salty." Kontar moved his head back onto his pillow, moaning as he did. "God, this conversation's so annoying." He rolled on his side, facing away from Takisha, and continued to mutter. "No wonder Ki-Hwan made me proxy, even though that lil' shit was supposed to Riyazat's proxy. Do your own dirty work, asshole. I'm not the one with problems."
Takisha leaned over the sewing counter. "What're you talking about?"
Kontar refused to face her, but he did raise his volume. "I'm talking about how Ki-Hwan begged me to talk to you for him, which he was supposed to do for Riyazat. But since he was too chicken to be alone with you, that coward made me go in his place!" He rolled onto his back, staring at the point where the walls merged. "Ki-Hwan wanted me to figure out what's your problem with Riyazat."
Takisha's eyes darted to the side. "I don't have a problem with him."
"I thought that, too, until I saw the videos Ki-Hwan took. He didn't like the way you ogled his man, and by 'ogle' I mean the death-glare you give Riyazat anytime he's in your line of sight. Ki-Hwan also caught you looking at Taj like she's a bug you want squish under your foot. They've asked your girls about it, and they say you're 'just a cat person'."
"I know. I saw." Kontar peeled back his cardigan. On the black underside were white cat heads. "But the guys don't think it's enough to warrant death threats with your eyes, especially towards Taj, since she's a pretty well-behaved chihuahua."
(Yes, Taj is a dog.)
"Quit exaggerating. I'm not sending any death threats."
"Well, Riyazat sure as hell wasn't getting good vibes." Kontar tilted his head towards Takisha, lazily gesturing at her. "Not from that face."
Takisha's head was slightly bowed. From the front, her expression was almost indiscernible. From Kontar's perspective on the floor, Takisha's feelings were obvious—feelings described by eyes narrowed between shuddering lashes, a tightly knitted brow, a blatant frown, and the slow deep breaths she took. Kontar watched her, waiting for her to look at him, to speak, but she remained stiff and silent, captivated by something on her left. Kontar followed her gaze, leading his eyes to her hand. She was grasping a short, white urn. Her fingers entwined the lid's two conical ears, stroking one of them with her thumb.
(Yes, that urn has cat ears.)
"Riyazat had this really dumb idea that it's his fault you hate him and hate being outside." Kontar took his eyes off the urn, watching Takisha again. "Is it? His fault?"
Takisha's eyes narrowed further, expelling a single teardrop. "No." That one word reverberated throughout the room, finishing with a light tremor.
(Yes, she is in mourning.)
Kontar faced the ceiling again. "Okay. I'll talk to the guys tomorrow. They wanted to find a way to make you more comfortable being outside, but I'll tell them…that you'll figure it out yourself. And I'll get Riyazat's measurements too." He rolled on his side, facing the other direction. "Is that alright?"
"Yeah," Takisha answered in a low, hoarse tone.
She released the urn to take into her emptied hand the sleeve of Kontar's jacket. She began to sew the new zip within its hole, watching Kontar as she worked. He was taking deep, steady breaths, his body rising and falling in tandem until Takisha spoke again.
"What does Thitiporn think about me?" she inquired quietly, so quietly that in truth the question was murmured.
Yet, Kontar could hear her. His body stiffened, and he sighed. Turning his head without showing his face, he answered, "I heard from Ki-Hwan, she can feel your eyes on her, and she can't stand it."
Takisha finished stitching in one side of the zip. "I just want to talk to her."
Kontar lowered his head. "Then talk to her, because right now, the only thing you're communicating is bloodlust."
"Yeah, I guess you're right." Takisha yanked the thread, sending the stitches holding the zip to the sleeve into hiding. "Goodnight," she said.
Kontar said it, too. "Hmph." And after a deep exhale, he finally slumbered.
A year from this night, the hotel will become home to a family of raccoons, who want nothing more than to nest in the small hill of furnishings in the far-right corner of the room. Whenever they depart or return, they will be greeted by their landlord—a short, white urn with a pair of pointed ears, tied shut by a string of dulled lights. The urn sat in the centre of the home, and it will stay there until the end of time.
(Yes, they left.)