We stood huddled in a pack on the tarmac, cold rain melting away the enthusiasm that had gripped us hours earlier. In the darkness it was hard to see the features of the other journalists but the miasma of resentment that hung over our little mob was almost tangible. I was dressed in a suit and heels, and my jacket was too thin to provide much protection from the biting wind. A few boy scouts had umbrellas but I was too far from them to benefit. I shifted from foot to foot and cursed my eagerness, wishing I could go home.
“You could at least let us wait on the plane!” The abrasive voice cut through the steady hammering of the rain, but no one answered him. Thankfully it was only a few more minutes before we were on the move. A brief announcement that we would be taken to our hotel, and then, what madness, we picked up our bags and began to walk. “Is there a car?” one hopeful muttered; she was answered by the shuffling tread of our feet.
The man beside me spoke loudly enough for all to hear. “These aliens obviously haven’t watched any movies. If they had they’d know that everything happens in the USA.” His belly laugh startled me and I moved to my left, only to bump into a short, thin woman. She flashed a glance at me, and spoke in a soft Southern drawl.
“Ignore him. He’s actually quite a nice guy once you get past the insufferable stupidity.” He laughed again, a good-natured chuckle. She held out her free hand as we walked. “My name’s Carrie.”
I took her hand and shook it, trying not to lose my footing. “Melissa.” We walked on, and I decided to concentrate on my feet rather than try to continue conversing; the last thing I needed was a broken ankle. I stared at my shoes, stepping gingerly over the uneven ground, and wondered again why I’d worn heels. “Cuban drizzle on Hong Kong heels,” I hummed. Who knew, the heels might actually have been made in Hong Kong. The road was treacherous and covered in potholes and I turned my ankle in one; the loud American man caught me as I stumbled.
“Pleased to meet you, I’m Paul,” he offered as he helped me regain my balance. I grinned, his humourous manner was growing on me. He reminded me of my brother, a little. The rain had eased slightly and some of the others were chatting quietly. There were a few streetlights in this area and less worried about falling I voiced a thought that had been chasing itself around my brain.
“You’d think they would have sent a bus?”
Carrie shook her head. “Cuba has less oil than us. They use less vehicles.” I looked around at the worn street, and realised I actually hadn’t seen that many cars. Paul coughed.
“They could have sent a bus if they wanted to. I think this was more about teaching us not to expect the kind of treatment we’re used to. Politics politics politics.” He smiled and under the streetlight it looked ghastly. A chill streaked down my spine, and I almost walked into the man in front of me. We’d reached our hotel.
It was an old, dirty building, three storeys high and grey in the dim light. We shuffled in, looking like a zombie horde as we jostled our way through the doors. An efficient-looking Cuban woman barked orders at us and we received our keys, and went our separate ways. Carrie grabbed my arm and said, “Come by my room in about twenty minutes. Seven.” I nodded and she let go. Hoisting my bag, I wandered down a corridor to my room, number fourteen. Once in, I dumped my bag on the floor and fell onto the bed.
This had seemed like such an amazing opportunity, back in Sydney. When my uncle had suggested he pull some strings to get me a place I had leapt at the idea, not really thinking it through. Once in a lifetime. Hell more than that, a completely unique experience, and something that could ensure my lifelong success. I groaned and shivered as the reality of my wet clothes seeped into my awareness. I peeled the sodden fabric away from my skin and draped it over a wooden chair, then knelt down to rummage through my overnight bag. “Fuck!” I could put on the pants and shirt I’d brought for tomorrow, or I could put my wet clothes back on. A towel on the bed caught my eye and I wrapped myself in it, the white terry cloth scratchy on my skin. There was a knock on my door, a meek, inoffensive little sound and I looked down at myself and grimaced.
“Hang on!” I cast a glance around the room again, toyed with the idea of wrapping the blanket around myself and then rejected it for fear of looking childish. Hiding my body behind the door I opened it a crack and peered out. Paul stood there, looking a little lost. He smiled when he saw me.
“Are you coming? Some of the others are keeping to themselves, but most of us are going to compare notes.”
I floundered. How on earth could I walk into a room full of journalists, dressed in nothing but a towel? “Um, sure, just gimme a sec ok?” I slammed the door in his face and dropped the towel, scrambling into the clothes for tomorrow. Moments later I resurfaced and hurried out of the room, Paul on my heels. We reached number seven and knocked; Carrie opened it and ushered us in.
The room was packed. About twenty men and women of different nationalities were squeezed into the tiny hotel room. I felt a bit of a fraud; the only Australian journalist in the group and I was barely out of university. Again I squashed the guilt that threatened to swamp me and found a space on the floor to sit. Paul leaned up against the wall behind me as a well-dressed though soggy man cleared his throat.
“I’m sure you’ve all heard conflicting stories, and really we won’t know what it is we’re here to see until we see it. I myself believe the ‘aliens’ are from another dimension, but it’s pointless speculating now we are this close. The reason Carrie suggested we meet is for mutual benefit. It’s clear the Cuban government will not expend much energy on us, and although it’s not normally our way to co-operate, I propose that we do indeed look out for each other. These are strange times, and our duty is to report the truth to the world—something we can do only if we help each other.” The cultured English voice trailed off as the restless journalists shifted and murmured. I gazed around the room and saw a mix of expressions: agreement, anger, fear, suspicion, and relief. Some people left without a word, others sat silently, listening to the discussions taking place around them.
Paul squeezed my shoulder and I looked up at him. He gestured across the room so we shoved our way as politely as possible in the direction of Carrie and the English man. Paul didn’t waste time on small talk.
“Do you suspect danger?” The other man winced at his directness.
“Not exactly. But Cuba isn’t all that transparent to the outside world, and this is something outside anyone’s experience.” He glanced quickly at me and frowned. I tried to look older.
Carrie interjected. “Paul this is Jonathon Meyers. Jonathon, Paul Brown. And this here is Melissa—“
“Cavendish,” I answered as she paused. Acutely aware of how recognisable their names were, and how innocuous my own, I tried to blend into the furniture. Jonathon turned back to Paul.
“I daresay most of the people remaining will tread carefully and heed what I’ve said. The others I guess will look after themselves and seek out the exclusive angle.” Carrie and Paul nodded in agreement. I yawned, and cringed with embarrassment. Paul laughed.
“It’s been a long night. You’d best get some sleep, Melissa. Tomorrow we meet the aliens!” He winked at me and I took a deep breath. Tomorrow I meet the aliens. I was on a collision course and there was no going back.
This week’s prompt: Use this lyric from Shore Leave to flavour your story: “Hong Kong drizzle on Cuban heels”.
I have to laugh at myself, I misremembered the lyric so used “Cuban drizzle on Hong Kong heels”… oh well!
Oh I know, I’m writing a series! I decided I had too much to squeeze into one short story and I didn’t want to make it too long to read comfortably in one sitting. Next week’s theme fits in nicely, and maybe the week after does too but we shall see ;).