Ally hadn't been there too long when she heard the man's phone ring again.
Her white face mask shifted off of her nose. She pulled on the string to tighten it. Her thin, brown hair got caught, so she moved it again, which allowed at least chunks of hair to fall so she could keep her mask steadfast. She was glad she had it on, she was never good at bluffing.
“Whoever it is, I'll give you more,” Ally said.
She felt a tickle in the back of her throat as she spoke up, and she hoped she wouldn't cough. She had a cough. Couldn't shake it. Five months of it. Maybe it was six? The room was hot, even if the air conditioning unit was humming.
“You don't understand the pressure I'm under,” he said, “you have no idea who's calling. He's a high-ranking priest in the Temple of Set. Just this morning I got a text from the Satanic Temple asking me to hold off selling, but here I am. I'm sure I'll get a call from some guy in the Cults of Cthulhu soon.”
Maybe he was bluffing, Ally couldn't tell. He wore a heavy beard like a mask. He was a big man. Huge, like a lumberjack. He shifted his body, then squinted. He wore the hard look of deciding whether he'd sell what he had without liking her very much.
“I'll give you a hundred more than we agreed,” she said.
“A hundred more?” He looked down and read the text on his phone.
“I sort of need the cash right now. You're in luck,” he said as he half-smiled.
The room smelled like microwave pizza, with lots of garlic to make it palatable. She could see a small coffee table was arranged in a fashion ripe for drugs. Maybe that was why he wanted the money immediately, but she didn't care. She had her own problems. Maybe that made her a bad person.
Ally then whipped out a wad of cash. She counted out six hundred dollars. He took the money, and shoved it into his front jean's pocket. She waited for what would come next. She stopped breathing for a moment until she watched him move over to a dresser drawer. He pulled it open quickly which made a thud sound from wood moving too fast over wood. From underneath some clothing, he pulled out a sandwich-sized plastic baggie. The bag was full of them. To her eyes, it looked like he was saving them for lunch.
He tossed her the baggie from across the room. She reached out to grab it, with a lucky mid-air catch.
She glanced at the baggie. There were about two dozen of the white, round, perfectly formed pieces of wheat bread inside the clear bag. It had been so long. So long. Too long. Perhaps five, no, six months.
Her feeling of quiet, lonely, do-anything-to-end-it despair began to lift as she touched the baggie. Inside herself, she leapt for joy at the sight of them. But she had to maintain her composure. She had to get out of there.
“Six hundred is a lot more than I thought I'd get. Not that I care, but why do you want those? You don't look like the typical goth.” He glanced at her clothes.
“You do this often?” she asked to change the subject.
He shrugged his shoulders and then answered, “Sometimes. I get a call from a German priest every so often looking for cash for a rent boy.”
She put the baggie into her purse and snapped it shut. “Call me if your German contact sends any more.”
“Maybe,” he said.
She nodded. Ally turned toward the door to leave.
He called out, “Hey, if you're interested, we have a party planned for this weekend.”
Her fingers curled around the door knob. “Maybe,” she answered. Then she pulled hard to open it. The sunlight flooded her eyes, which had adjusted to the darkness inside the hotel room.
The humid air struck her as she walked down the stairs. Her face perspired underneath the mask. As she hit the last step, she coughed as an uncontrollable fit came over her. She coughed all the way to her car. The cough stopped as she clicked her keys to open the driver's door. As she got in and locked the doors, she watched a homeless man cross the road.
Alone at last, she pulled down her mask and let it sit at her neck. She felt it was like a garland of garlic; she moved it to the passenger seat.
The disheveled, mask-less homeless man knocked on her window and showed her a small flower, the kind that grew along highways. She guessed he was selling it. She opened her purse and found one last twenty-dollar bill. She rolled down the window slightly and gave him the money. She began to roll up the window when he shouted at her.
“Don't forget your flower! Here,” he said.
He tried to jam it into the small space above her nearly rolled up window.
“Okay, wait,” Ally said as she looked for the button that lowered the window. She lowered it another inch and he pushed the flower through it.
“Thank you!” she said.
He walked off towards some apartments, and she lost sight of him.
Ally set aside the flower, then put her car into Drive. She made a left hand turn and exited onto a ramp that led her back to the suburbs. As she drove onto the highway she passed a church, and the noon sun struck its golden cross, almost blinding her for a moment. She grabbed her sunglasses and placed them over her eyes. The dark shade of the glasses made it easier to see.
She pulled into her brick apartment complex, next to a tree-lined street full of Colonial one-story houses. She left the car running in the lot, for the air conditioning. No one was outside, the parking lot was empty at midday on a weekday.
She took the baggie out from her purse.
She felt her heart beating hard and fast and recklessly like a person in the first blush of falling in love. She had waited so long. At least five months, maybe six. It almost overwhelmed her. Tears formed in her eyes. She had gone through the desert experience described by St. John of the Cross.
Now she had her watershed moment. Feeding the five thousand long ago was the precursor, but this bread would feed her today. She made the Sign of the Cross. Staring at the two dozen consecrated hosts, she let her tears fall freely because there was no way to stop them anyway.
She had waited a long time. Too long. She wiped her tears off the plastic, and then dried them with her long hair. She opened the sandwich bag. She took the first one, kissed it and ate it. The she did the same for the second. She took the third, and then the fourth. She prayed a prayer of Thanksgiving. Three hours was a long time to be fixed to a cross she thought. Too long.
She ate the bread in clusters of two and three. Her tears fell onto them, and they became softer because of her tears.
When there was no more of the bread, she looked at her hands to make sure no crumbs were left.
She stopped crying. She finally found what she had been denied.
Ally took the empty plastic baggie and placed it back in her purse. She snapped it shut with a small pop as she secured her purse. She wasn't sure what she should do with the empty sandwich bag now, perhaps she should bury it.
She picked up her mask from the passenger seat and put its strings around her ears, and her mouth was covered again.
Ally turned off the car and got out. She coughed in the humid air. It would be the beginning of a fit she feared, but she couldn't think about it. She had to go back to work, online for the past five months, or maybe it was six? Her purse swung off her shoulder but it felt lighter. Her whole self felt lighter.
The hour trapped the heat like a clear greenhouse, but Ally didn't mind; she knew she would survive.