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Three people share the same bed without knowing each other. For the purpose of this story, each one of them exists for only eight hours a day. Miss A between midnight and eight in the morning. Mr. B from eight to four pm. And Miss C starting from four in the morning until midnight.

At the heart of the matter is a classified ad for a room for rent and three solitary travelers reading the notice in different bus stations. Three lives come together on page thirty-nine of the Sunday paper, and they will lose themselves as one beneath the Greco-Roman lintel of a rented space.

The room in question can be found on the third floor of a building eroded by the humidity of the bay of Asunción. The already mournful aspect of the ancient heap on the corner is further degraded by flaking black paint. It is of the neoclassical style, remodeled for the first time mid-century after being struck by a shell during the Brazilian occupation of 1869, and for a second time, three decades later, when it was converted into a warehouse. Despite its unsightly restoration, it commands a certain sense of awe. For many years now, the windows of the bottom floors have found themselves shuttered by wooden planks nailed from within. The upper level windows, reinforced with iron bars, though capable of being opened, almost never are.

When Miss C arrived, a window on the third floor was open, the very window through which—not long from now—two tenants would lay eyes on one another for the first time, and though she could not foresee the consequences, when she saw the window she felt the same shiver of fear she would feel that night. If not for the money she would save renting the room for only a third of the day, she never would have stayed in such a place.

As the private life of Miss A occurred only between midnight and eight in the morning, after a couple of dark nights she grew accustomed to moving blindly through the small room. Even more quickly, she became obsessed with a few objects she inspected by candlelight. Foremost, with a lipstick she found in a box, lip prints still preserved on its creamy surface. Anything that was evidence of human life made her deliriously happy. Three hundred kilometers from her family, busy with work and her studies, her whole social life was limited to the shadowy friendship of the room and whatever could be found inside it; sometimes a footprint tenuously lit by a flickering loose bulb, or a hair threaded through the grate of the tub’s drain. But the most human contact she had she owed to the foam mattress that conserved, at least for a little while, the heat of the person who had occupied the bed before her.

Something similar occurred with Mr. B, the difference being that his solitude manifested in the clear light of day, and therefore to him the room seemed larger, like the bridge of an old cargo ship anchored in the shipyard of the vanquished. The antique wardrobe with three compartments, the rickety table that also served as a vanity, and the faded bed—none of these kept him company. But he did feel camaraderie in sensing that someone had opened and closed those compartments when he was not there, or in the fact that the location of the objects on the vanity changed each morning, and in what was suggested by the warm bed that cradled him as he fell asleep.

Miss C, for her part, had always been accustomed to isolation, to hard times and unrequited love. It was hardly surprising that she would so quickly became the first link in a dark love triangle. The first time she saw the bed sunken in the middle and felt the heat of the sheets, it turned from a simple object of curiosity into a complex human relationship. Her better nature told her to stay away from dreams of love. Her better nature, though, was guided by very ambiguous ideas of those terms.

Between eight in the morning and four in the afternoon, Mr. B’s life was overtaken by a platonic love. He made a dreamy habit of molding his body anatomically to the hot silhouette impressed upon the bed, a practice which ended up turning him into a madman for eight hours. First, his ears began to play tricks on him, he heard a voice that came from nowhere and, half asleep, he told himself it was intimately related to the heat of the bed, which spoke of an absent body. Slowly but surely, this absence transformed into an undeniable reality for him, and he learned to coexist with the emptiness personified by the room.

Miss A’s anxiety developed not gradually but rather abruptly, appearing perhaps for the first time when the light of the moon cut through the blinds, or maybe at the instant in which silence overpowered the room. And since the heat, short-lived and foreign and conserved by the mattress, was the only company she had before her own body took possession of the bed, her mind created something with which to occupy her soul. An illusion of company materialized, which lasted some thirty seconds—now more, now less, proportional to how long the heat lingered in the bed, dependent upon the caprices of the gusts of wind and the old bricks; on some occasions, the illusion disappeared the moment she entered the room. It was in this way that, in the very spot where the moonlight filtered through the lattice of the blinds, she saw a man limned with light, seated on a footstool painted in the style of Louis XVI, evanescent on the edge of the darkness.

During this time, the three solitary inhabitants established certain eerie parallels: each possessed of only eight hours of private life, they were all enamored with the halo of temperature of an unknown body. They suffered hypnotic, burlesque hallucinations, and they were predisposed to fall to whims of humor and jealousy.

Their differences, on the other hand, will only manifest when one of them threatens a carotid artery with a pen; after this, one will become a cowardly fugitive, another will drag a cadaver wrapped in a sky blue curtain to the edge of a river, and the last of our lonely travelers will be that cadaver.

It does not matter how much we desire love or to be loved, neither the heart nor the mind is satisfied with a mere shadow of affection. Sooner or later, we demand more. It happened to Miss C while she spoke in the half-light to the silhouette of the coat rack and it did not respond. Mr. B noted it when he walked straight through the chatty woman at the dressing table. It struck Miss A when she realized her man lacked a face.

During these days and nights, they left small presents or anonymous messages on the cedar dresser, beside the bed, in front of the door—all intended for whoever preceded them in their shared berth. Although they never ran into one another (they always left too early or arrived too late), each bit of indirect evidence made the illusory presence of their phantom fellow tenants more vivid, or at least caused the persistent disturbances in their sleep. But like courtship or blind dates, the truth poured out in a tragic flood of deceptive revelations.

Dissatisfied (by destiny or chance) at the same time, the three decide to unmask, once and for all, who left the bed warm, to ascertain if the specters that appeared in the room had any basis in reality. And so, Miss C asks the taxi to go back, she will not go to her job at the gas station. She does not know that Mr. B, too, has excused himself from work and arrived, moments before her, still dressed in his guard’s uniform. While Miss C gets out of the taxi, he finds himself climbing the stairs of the building. And Miss A remains sleepless because the sky blue curtains, recently hung, impede the passage of the moon and obstruct her nocturnal chimeras. She rips down the hangings with a tug, opens the blinds, and freezes in front of the window. Here occurs the first visual encounter between the tenants.

Resolute, Mr. B knocks on the door of the room. At that very moment, Miss C shudders beneath the only streetlight, contemplating the feminine silhouette where she expected to see the man of her dreams; and, simultaneously, Miss A and Mr. B have brought their own delusions. At this very minute, the fantastic and the real conjoin in an unhinged sensation—Mr. B, in a resounding state of denial, is repulsed by this stranger who occupies the space of the ghost he saw but pretended did not exist. And Miss A is blinded by her immense paranoia when she sees that she is being watched from the street at the same time as she senses another presence beneath the lintel of the doorway.

Miss C’s peculiar nature conspires with Mr. B’s experience and seals their tragic fate. Not for nothing, the room returns to its appearance of an ancient ship anchored in the shipyard of the vanquished—sunk before it even departs. In the sixty seconds of the zero hour, the three exist synchronously.

Mr. B is the frustrated captain of a ship never able to set sail, in his fist he grips a pen with the logo of his security firm, setting off a series of unfortunate events. Miss A repels his histrionic attack with singular force. At the same time, their hallucinations grapple with one another: the chattering woman, the man striped with light. The lonely travelers and their warm bodies are wounded by basic, blunted objects. The two become aware of the gun tucked in Mr. B’s belt. At this moment they cease to be adversaries and are transformed into a cowardly fugitive and a guilty accomplice. Miss C, in overalls and a two-toned cap, appears breathless at the threshold. She hears a crash, her eyes register the ludicrous reality, she is an innocent victim, a future sky blue bundle at the bottom of the river, unlucky in life and death; a stray bullet is suspended in the air, the duel will be over when it strikes her chest. While the bullet travels, she thinks bitterly, almost mockingly, that she should have stayed away from the classified ads, from dreams of love, from Greco-Roman lintels, and from warm beds.

Mónica Bustos (Asunción, 1984) is the author of five novels: León muerto (Cría Cuervos, 2004), Chico Bizarro y las moscas (Alfaguara, 2010), which was awarded the inaugural Augusto Roa Bastos Prize, El club de los que nunca duermen (Alfaguara, 2012), Novela B (2013) originally published in Mexico and reissued in 2020 in Spain by Obscura Editorial, and Humberstone (El Lector, 2016) reissued in 2022 by Pro Latina Press.