Pick a Random Page by Slawka G. Scarso

In the empty hotel on the slopes of Vesuvius, after they’ve just met again – after how many years is it? Five, seven, more? – they drink one last glass of wine, like they haven’t had enough already.

They have the entire hotel to themselves. She’s the only guest. The place is so small it doesn’t have a receptionist, not even in the middle of the summer, let alone now that it’s February, and they’ve only just pruned the vines outside, the brown cuttings of Falanghina and Aglianico left on the edge of the vineyards.

In the lounge, hanging on the walls, there are old prints of Naples and the surrounding countryside, and hand-painted plates from Vietri. They have the colours of the thick-skinned yellow lemons of Amalfi, and of the turquoise sea in the bays carved in the coast. They went there on holiday, one summer, riding from one village to the other on a battered scooter, sun towels wrapped around their necks, laughter snaking on the winding road.

There is a sofa too – they sit at opposite ends – and a fireplace that begs to be lit but neither smokes anymore. They talk about how bizarre it was to meet at the wine tasting earlier, and about what they’ve done with their lives – she’s started a small business selling wine in Rome, that’s why she’s here. When he asks, she says she’s single because she cannot find the time to meet anyone, but all the while she stares at a print of Vesuvius. He has graduated from university, at last, and has just married a girl from his village, only miles away. They’re expecting a boy already and maybe it was a surprise, but she’s too afraid to ask. He enquires about her family, her grandma too, because they were together at an age when meeting the family didn’t bear any special commitment. When she tells him her grandma passed away, he recalls how she made every choice by picking a random page in the Bible. She smiles for that is one of her favourite memories too.

They talk till he says This place is so empty it looks like the hotel from The Shining. Then he turns to the corridor with all the empty rooms and says: What if the Grady twins appear tonight, and she laughs and says No, don’t say it. Now I won’t be able to sleep, and I’ll ask you to stay, but she only thinks that last part and maybe he understands, or maybe not, but he says, Let’s go and check if they’re really here. Let’s check all the rooms.

She makes sure to skip the one where she left her bag earlier, and they inspect all the others. They peer inside the empty wardrobes. They search underneath the beds.

Each room is named after a grape variety, and in the Coda di Volpe room she peeks inside the bedside table too, hoping to find a Bible. There’s always a Bible, she thinks. But not here. Instead, she finds a biography of an Italian ex-prime minister from when they were both too young to vote, his unsmiling face stamped on the front cover. A local, she remembers. She opens a random page, the way her grandmother would do with the Bible, and of course, it’s about anticipated elections and parliamentary crisis – what did she expect, given the country’s history? – and when she looks up, she tells herself that he seems sober enough now, and to him that it’s getting late, she must wake up early the next day, it’s a long drive back to Rome, and he says Of course.

After he’s left, and she’s locked the door of the vineyard hotel after him, she thinks that her grandmother was never quite sure about those messages from the Bible after all, but said it’s not the message that is important, but what you read in it.

Biography: Slawka G. Scarso’s work has appeared in Ghost Parachute, Flashback Fiction, Fractured Lit, Scrawl Place and elsewhere. Her novella in flash All Their Favourite Stories was commended in the 2022 Bath Novella in Flash Award and published by Ad Hoc Fiction. She is based in Italy. More words on www.nanopausa.com

Image: unsplash.com