Hotel Problem
Ella Longpre

The hotel stood at the center of what used to be the town. Six families stayed there.
The first family had been wealthy, though obviously they were not wealthy now. Still, the third family had not been wealthy before, and the distrust between these two families was great. Especially between the mothers.
The second family was smaller than the third, though larger than the fourth. The fourth family was ridiculed for its pride. The fourth family, though, was clever. The third family had too many needs. The fifth family was very happy, and the sixth had been very happy before.
That year the daffodils came up in February.
By that time, even after passing a winter together, the families still did not often interact, though the children did sneak around the building at night and in the afternoons. They were the ones who came up with the number system: the family that stayed in room number One was called the first family, the second family stayed in room number Two, and so on, simple enough that the adults caught on quickly and referred to each other in private as such. For instance, the wife from the sixth family was referred to as the sixth wife, though there were not six wives living in the hotel.
Though the fourth family cautioned against it, the sixth family left soon after the early fall. The sixth husband was injured, and the sixth wife was sure there would still be medical supplies and doctors at the hospital a few towns over. It was fifty miles. She used one of the food trucks from the hotel kitchen to push him down the drive and left in the early morning.
The daffodils wilted early on. There were no more rains. The fathers from the third and fifth families had taken on the duty of venturing outside the hotel for food. One day they came back without any wild animals. The woman from the fourth family then began to go out alone and brought back edible plants. The traps she set, though, remained empty, and she gave the third and fifth fathers credit that she had, until then, withheld.
At this point, the second family decided to leave also. The second mother gathered a good portion of the remaining food supply and plenty of linens, packed them in a housekeeping cart, laid her infant on top, and set out in the middle of the night with a dream to meet the sixth family at the hospital.
The children began to meet regularly in the hallway at night to tell fortunes and eat papers from the big register behind the front desk. One night the first teenager was telling a ghost story when a door opened. The children gasped (there weren't shrieks left, at this point), until they saw that it was the door to room number Four. When the woman walked out of the room, bleary-eyed, the two girls from the third family ran to her and hugged her legs. She saw the toddler from the third family chewing on a post-it note and shook her head.
The other adults awoke not long after to the sound of cracking wood. They came out into the hallway and saw the children huddled together and laughing, chewing on basil leaves. The loud cracking was coming from the lounge. The woman from the fourth family had taken an axe from the fire emergency box and was chopping up one of the desks in the lounge. The adults from the other families ushered their children back to their rooms and double-locked their doors.
An hour later, the children were in the lounge, quietly helping the woman peel the thick white plastic skin from the pieces of the particle board desk. The two teenage boys from the first family had been given knives for the task. The third toddler was sitting on an ottoman in the corner, wearing the goggles the woman had worn to chop up the desk.
The other adults were awoken again, this time to a familiar smell they couldn't name. They met each other in the hall. The third wife began frantically looking for the missing children, imagining them chopped up in the lounge. The fifth father found them in the kitchen, with the woman from the fourth family who'd just been chopping the desk to pieces. The children stood over the stove while the woman stirred the pot, the toddler on her hip. Waste baskets full of particle board sat on the kitchen floor. The parents pulled their children away from the stove and looked in the pot. The woman was boiling the particle board, and had added basil leaves. The basil plant was the only kitchen herb that had survived. The fourth woman had hidden it in her room. She was watering it secretly with part of her own water share, from the supply they stockpiled between the jugs in the pantry and what they caught in a bin during the rains. The mother from the first family wondered if she had watered it also with tears. As the sun came up that day, the families feasted on the broth the woman had made.
By March, the two daughters from the third family began fainting during the day. The adults assumed it was due to malnourishment until one of the girls spiked a fever one night. The third family soon after decided to also leave for the hospital.
The mother and the two sons from the first family got fevers the next day.
The fourth family seemed immune.
Slowly, the fifth family began to show symptoms -- the father first, then the other father, then the daughter. The second fifth father died early one morning, in the front hall, crawling toward the door.
Soon after this, all that was left was the fourth family, and she was very lonely.

Answer Key

1st family: 3 people (mother, two teenage boys)
2nd family: 2 people (mother, infant)
3rd family: 5 people (2 parents, 2 children, 1 toddler)
4th family: 1 person (she)
5th family: 3 people (father, father, daughter)
6th family: 2 people (couple)