Welcome to day twenty-five of the Haunted Hotel Writer and Illustrator showcase!
Come back each day, the entire month of October for a scare! Today’s story comes from room #668!
Jeremy finds me in the lobby hiding behind a potted fern. I honestly didn’t think he was smart enough to notice me behind the bloated leaves, my outfit blending in with the navy drapes framing the floor to ceiling windows along the south wall. Normally I’d put more effort into hiding, especially from someone who wants what I know Jeremy wants, but I didn’t think I needed to.
“Come on, Lissa. Just one catch. It would be so easy for you and save me so much time.” For a boy the size of a full grown, well fed, professional football player, he has perfected the art of the pathetic whine. “I don’t have time for this. One little catch, that’s all I’m asking for. That’s basically nothing.”
“I’m not throwing a catch so you can slack off in First World.”
“First World is pointless anyways. Come on, I’ll even trade you for it. All the chocolate mint tea you could possibly drink?”
“Please. If I’m throwing a catch for you, it’s going to cost you a lot more than a beverage I can get for free from room service any old time.”
“So you DON’T want tea?” Jeremy studies me suspiciously.
“That’s going a little too far.” There’s a chill in the air, even in the Thornewood Hotel’s spacious, well-appointed lobby. The lush carpet sinks under my flats as if it’s brand new, and the overall attitude presented by the overstuffed velvet furniture and the roaring fireplace large enough to roast a full-grown human in is presumptuous wealth. But even the Thornewood, a hundred year old palace impervious to change, has to admit winter is coming. Winter in New England can chew up your bones and spit them right back out. Even October is a reminder that something much worse is on it’s way.
“You know what I mean. You don’t want tea in exchange for the catch?”
“I can get free tea, coffee, and hot chocolate any time of day, in any amount I want. Why would I let you off that easy?”
Jeremy grimaces as we pass the front desk and through the French doors into one of the five side parlors. This is my favorite, done in shades of black, gray, and silk. The lamplight is low and evening is descending in a blaze of fiery pink and deep purple glory through the windows. “It’s not my fault you live in the world’s most expensive apartment.”
“Not that expensive for us.” I can’t help bragging a little. It’s good for Jeremy to never be right. Everyone else lets him spout nonsense.
He sighs, flinging himself onto a delicate-legged settee. It quivers under him. “Fine. Fine fine fine, you’re right, Lissa. As usual. About everything. From now to eternity.” He props his head against the narrow silk-covered arm. “I’ll give you whatever it is you want, and I won’t complain for more than one year. Now will you please throw a catch for me and get me through this assignment?”
With his hair all mussed up like that and his legs folded to cram himself onto the elegant couch, he looks like a Greek painting done all in heavy oils, the light directed right onto the breadth of his jaw.
“Fine.” I fold my arms over my chest. My sworn duty is to serve as Jeremy’s sense of balance and proportion. Agreeing to throw a catch for him, when I know my mom will murder me if she ever finds out and the entire town would be scandalized, doesn’t seem like I’m doing my job quite right.
But who can resist the idea of someone owing them a no-holds-barred anytime anywhere favor?
“You know I can’t choose who or when.”
Jeremy lets his head fall back casually against the arm of the settee. It would have worked, too, except that settees are not couches and his skull bounces loudly off the stern wooden backbone. “I don’t care. It’s First World; she just wants some kind of writeup on some kind of historical figure. I bet I get bonus points for not covering Benjamin Franklin or Paul Revere or whoever.”
“Is that literally all you know about history? The old white guys?”
Jeremy groans. “No.”
“That means yes. I can feel it.” I hesitate again. This is all wrong. When I throw a catch, whatever spirit is closest will arrive. They could have died yesterday, and I’d be disturbing their rituals for nothing. They could have died a hundred years ago – the Thornewood is chock full of interesting spirits, which is why the Catch Keeper’s apartment is here – but have private stories, things they don’t want aired in someone’s junior level History of the First World class. Besides, if all Jeremy knows is a handful of dudes who died a really long time ago, he deserves to do his own research and find something more interesting to know. “This would seriously take you like an hour on the internet. It’s one of the easiest assignments in the entire grade. Not just in First World – in the entire school. Are you sure this is what you want to put yourself into debt for?”
“Just throw the catch,” Jeremy snaps, overenunciating his vowels.
Fine. I warned him about a hundred times.
I close my eyes and open my hands, immediately sensing the hum of spirits gathered close by. The Thornewood always feels this way, like a low-level electric buzz in my bloodstream. I don’t drink coffee or take energy supplements, and I rarely need more than a nap’s worth of sleep. Something about that constant pulse of living and formerly living things makes me impervious to most natural human needs.
Jeremy finds it creepy. My mom, after decades of catch keeping, is starting to find it alienating. I just really enjoy feeling powerful.
The catch is already forming between my hands. Invisible to most human eyes, unbearably attractive to ghostly ones. I make the catch a pleasing shade of turquoise, brilliant in this grayscale parlor. My mom can form catches with her eyes open, but I always find the environment too distracting – particularly when that environment includes Jeremy. I prefer to see the catches in my mind.
This one is a curved U, glittering with broken glass imbedded beneath the smooth as ice surface. The color intensifies until it resembles an ocean at dawn. My back starts to sweat.
My shoulders feel tight and the tips of my fingers shake against the delicate lines of the catch. My mom’s been teaching me the anatomy of catches since before I knew any human anatomy, and I know how to make a catch that works. This one has substance and strength, but the beauty factor is strong in this one and even though I know it’s origins, the allure is enough to entice even me.
Which means it should work pretty quickly.
I open my eyes. Jeremy is still sprawled on the settee. His eyes are on me, on my hands, but to him the catch will look something like an old, chipped teacup. Mom prefers to make her catches look like hairbrushes or contact cases or some other random thing. I’m too afraid of someone picking one up by accident. Bad things happen when ordinary people get curious about catches.
“Is that it? Did you already catch something?”
I roll my eyes. “No, genius. I can’t just catch something with a snap of my fingers. This entire job wouldn’t exist if catching was that easy. I have to find a good spot to lay the catch and we’ll check it tonight.”
“Tonight?” Jeremy’s voice slides up an octave.
There are rumors the Thornewood is haunted. They are, of course, true. The Catch Keeper wouldn’t be housed here if the place weren’t full of ghosts. It’s a hotel – stands to reason that significant portions of people’s lives and huge parts of their stories have happened inside these walls. But haunting is a thing that the average person doesn’t super want to know more about, I guess. To me, signs of a haunting are like the bell in a firehouse or the crackle of a dispatch radio or the chime of someone’s bed alarm in a hospital. Just a call to work.
“Yeah, tonight. It’s the easiest time to check catches without people getting curious. Besides, I have a feeling about this parlor.”
Jeremy leaps off the settee, studying the corners of the room. He brushes off the front of his shirt, as if some ghost has decided to take a snooze on his powerful chest. “Where? What? Do you see some now?”
“I can’t see ghosts.” It’s probably time to give up trying to teach Jeremy about catch keeping or ghosts or anything else that has to do with what I do. He has his job – playing football and getting nerdy about biology sometimes – and I have mine. Never shall the two combine lest I lose my mind.
“Are you sure we have to come back at night? Really, really sure?”
“Swing by the apartment. Room 668.”
Jeremy glares at me. “The Thornewood only has 666 rooms.”
“That depends on who you ask. And how smart you are.” I smile smugly. Jeremy Rutgers might be an attractive, usually thoughtful, occasionally intelligent boy, but I am the catch keeper’s kid and he’s never going to completely outwit me. At least not at the Thornewood. “If you can’t find my place, you probably don’t deserve my help.”
Jeremy pleads all the way back to the lobby, but my favorite hobby is making life hard for him and he should have just saved his breath. Each time I issue him a challenge he can’t complete, it’s a reminder for him of how much he needs me around. Not that he needs the reminder. I’m delightful company. But I don’t think it hurts.
“Making a nuisance of yourself?” Giselle watches Jeremy slink off through the main doors, still casting pitiful glances my way and muttering something about what will happen if he gets caught coming back here after his curfew tonight.
I hand her a peppermint patty. There’s a stash in every bag I own, and while my backpack is a bitter reminder of the homework waiting for me before I check Jeremy’s catch tonight, the accessibility of perfect chocolate and mint almost makes up for it. “I just like to be Jeremy’s wiser and more worldly voice of reason as often as possible.”
“Funny. Voice of reason is your favorite role and yet most people call it voice of annoyance.”
“Are you coming over for dinner?”
Giselle checks the wall clock. “I have another hour before I could reasonably squeeze in a dinner break. Laura was on me for that on my last time card, so I have to watch when I clock out. Apparently an hour long dinner break 45 minutes into my shift is not considered a wise use of my time.”
“Can’t your brother just cover for you instead of you even clocking out?”
“I think they’re catching on to that. They let things go for me a lot because of the whole privileged citizen business, but I can’t take advantage of it. I might need to leverage all that pity at some point for something that’s a bigger deal than dinner.”
“I don’t know. Mom’s cooking, not me. This might be worth using up some pity points for.”
Giselle’s face brightens considerably. I would be offended, if it weren’t for the fact that I suck at cooking, and I’m feeling pretty relieved myself that my mom is in charge tonight.
When the builders created this place way back when, hotels were a big deal. An inn or a motel was nothing, you paid for a night and slept on some hay in an ale-drunken stupor and then carried on the next morning. Hotels, on the other hand, were places the wealthy went to show off being wealthy. They expected comfort, glamour, sophistication. They wanted to be wowed while pretending very hard not to be.
When the current owners took the Thornewood over and got her all restored from the spider-infested hovel she’d become in the early 1900s, they decided to turn some of the servant’s quarters into serviceable low income apartments. There are three fairly decent apartments down there now, which means there are four families who live permanently at the Thornewood. One apartment is occupied by Wilmar, the 97-year-old human relic who enjoys walking around with a cane to shake at everyone except pretty college girls and men in suits. Another hosts a family with seven kids that all wear a lot of jean material. The last one is home to Giselle, her brother, and her uncle.
Mom and I live upstairs. Room 668, despite Jeremy’s insistence that such a thing is impossible. And up until now, aside from a bevy of ghosts, Wilmar’s mumbling, and the annoying habit the nighttime desk clerk has of staring down his nose at Mom and I, the Thornewood has been as close to a happy, cozy home as I could imagine.
The thing is, I’ve never thrown a catch my Mom didn’t approve of before. I’m confident in my catching abilities. I’m comfortable with ghosts. I’m…well, I’m whatever I feel around Jeremy. This should be fine.
Which is why I am equal parts worried and embarrassed by the trickle of fear sliding slowly down my spine as Giselle and I make dinner plans and I ride the elevator up to my apartment.
Dinner is sweet and sour chicken with slightly crunchy brown rice, which is five steps above my usual Thursday night plain chicken with super crunchy brown rice offering. Giselle hums appreciatively as she helps clear the table and promises to glue some pages of the nighttime desk clerk’s log together for me tonight.
Mom settles into the wingback chair by our nonfunctioning fireplace as I fix my hair in the mirror behind the door. “Going somewhere?”
She’s right to sound surprised. It’s after 7:00, and traditionally I like to go to bed at the same approximate time as preschoolers and elderly grandmothers.
“I’m just helping a friend with homework.”
“Jeremy.” Mom sniffs as she turns a page in her book. She’s never been a particular fan, ever since Jeremy spilled an entire can of Coke on a batch of fresh catches disguised as household bills.
“It could be someone else too. It could be for Giselle. Or Sarah, or Amanda. Or Nick.”
“Why do you even bother? Your mom is way too smart for you to try to pull off some nonsense.” Mom turns another page. There’s no way she’s reading that fast and her unease makes me uneasy too.
“What’s wrong?” I ask casually. I put on a coat for dramatic effect. Just to be clear, I could actually be leaving the Thornewood and dropping a study guide off at Nick or Amanda’s house. I could.
Mom sighs, rubbing her temple. “Something’s off. I should throw an extra set of catches tonight and put up a few barriers. I haven’t felt one like this in a long time. It’ll have to be just the right catch to keep whatever this is, and I don’t know if I even have the energy. It’s making me tired. I feel a migraine coming on.”
That’s definitely not a problem. Out of all the ghosts in the world, my catch definitely did not keep a dangerous one. Nope. Everything is completely fine.
My throat is a little too dry. “But you’ve gotten migraines before. Remember that set of brothers a couple years ago? They gave you such a migraine you threw up.”
“And they were extremely dangerous.” Mom closes her book aggressively and stands up, brushing her hand on my shoulder as she walks to the kitchen to make tea. “Just keep an eye out. Don’t let Jeremy get you wrapped up in any stupid schemes. I’ve got a bad feeling about this one. This is the kind of catching that gets people killed or lost.”
Our eyes accidentally meet. Mom and I prefer to have all our serious conversations while staring into the broken fireplace, or up at the stars, or at the couch cushions. It’s much easier to be honest when we don’t have to see each other being so honest and vulnerable.
The thing about lost people is that my dad is one of them. Back in my mom’s heyday, when she was a roving catch keeper and would take on anything, anywhere. She was invincible, and worth a lot of money to people with unsolvable ghost problems, until the day my dad was too close, and the ghost was too strong, and instead of her catch keeping the ghost, it kept my dad.
What I remember about him is a reddish beard and a laugh that seemed to shake the floorboards. I was two, though, so I suppose a lot of earth-shaking things happened.
I break eye contact and zip up my coat, stuffing my feet into a pair of boots. “I’ll be back in half an hour or so. I can make you some hot chocolate then, if you want. If you’re still working.”
Mom frowns. “Apology hot chocolate? What is it, exactly, that you’re going to help Jeremy with? You better not be cheating. Or encouraging cheating. That boy’s got to learn to get by on something besides his looks.”
“We’re not cheating, Mom.” Much.
“Watch out for signs. If you see anything-“
“Leave a marker behind so you can find it. I know. I’ll text you if anything weird happens.”
“Don’t text me. Get out of there and come home safely.” Mom shakes her head as she puts the kettle on the stove, muttering something to herself about teenagers and their nonexistent understanding of the frailty of human lives.
There are things about having a parent for a roommate that are less than pleasant.
I open the door and walk out straight into Jeremy. He’s standing hunch-shouldered and wide-eyed, looking slightly bewildered. His hair is all on end.
“You scared me,” he says, pouting like a toddler.
“You scared me. Why are you lurking in front of my apartment?”
“You said I had to find your place if I wanted help. I’ve been here for two hours trying to find it.”
“You could have just followed me home.”
“You would have noticed.”
He’s not wrong.
Our apartment, Room 668 of the Thornewood, is only accessible via a spiraling metal staircase inside the wall of Room 666. Nobody is supposed to know exactly where we live- there’s still a few people who think ghosts should be free to roam regardless of the havoc that can cause, and think catch keeping is cruel. There’s other people who want to use catches for their own purposes, as if the stories of a handful of old ghosts are going to somehow make them powerful or wise. Most stories are nothing but first kisses and ancient petty arguments, but try telling that to a muscle-bound mustachioed dude who thinks a ghost knows the location of the treasure he’s been searching for all his life.
There’s a lot of reasons for keeping the exact location and access point of our apartment under the radar.
“How did you even find it?”
Jeremy taps his head. “I am much smarter than you give me credit for.”
“Who’d you flirt with?” I ask, narrowing my eyes.
Jeremy makes a point of focusing on his feet finding rungs on the slippery, rusting twist of the metal as we descend. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Flirting would be cruel, when I’m so beautiful and people are so vulnerable to my powers.”
“You are a huge idiot.”
“But you love me.”
There’s an uncomfortable twinge in my chest at the word ‘love’ that I’d rather not stop and consider for too long. I’m busy rushing headlong into foolish danger. No need to look too closely at my motivations.
Room 666 is, thankfully, occupied by an elderly couple who go to bed around six each evening and sleep like mountains, unyielding and emitting a faint whistle of wind. The front desk doesn’t often rent 666 for an assortment of fairly obvious reasons, but when they do they try to keep it to customers like these. I have crept past far more than my fair share of weirdly sleeping people. There are a lot of people who do weird things in their sleep.
It’s no problem getting past them, but working our way back to the parlor is a challenge. Everyone knows I hate being up late at night – late, in this case, being around 8:37 pm – and everyone knows I shouldn’t be ready to throw catches on my own yet. There’s a whole licensing process, and since catch keeping isn’t the easiest thing in the world, it’s a big deal when someone gets licensed. They would know if I’d made any progress in that regard.
It takes impersonating a waitress, army crawling behind the partition that separates the wait staff hall from the dining room, and literally sprinting down a back hallway with the night manager’s voice growing ever closer behind us as he waxes wise to some unfortunate soul, but we manage to slide into the parlor without being seen.
My skin immediately crawls. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up and my heart is beating much faster than it should be. We did just escape danger. It was a harrowing journey into this parlor, and required a lot more acrobatics than someone who is usually in bed at this time of night should ever have to perform.
Of course that’s why I’m so uneasy. Of course that’s why a knot forms in my stomach as I step cautiously toward my catch.
The smooth glass sides of my catch are covered in spider vein cracks. The entire catch shudders and heaves, as if something is about to hatch like an egg.
I swallow a hundred misgivings and reach out my hand.
“Did you get something? I hate First World, you’re saving my life! I could kiss you right now.” Jeremy comes up behind me, so close I can feel the warmth of his body down my spine.
There’s still time to turn back. I could listen to my gut, the catch keeper’s best friend, and walk away. I could stop lying to my mom and let her help me. I could bring the catch to the restored tavern down the street, home to half a dozen roaming catch keepers, and get one of them to tackle whatever it is inside there.
I have a lot of options, and all of them would be better than doing this myself. Every instinct in my body screams no.
Except the instincts that are all too aware of Jeremy’s eager face and the hand he rests on my shoulder.
It just can’t be as bad as my mom thinks. She’s poisoned by what happened with my dad.
Jeremy’s hand slides over my shoulder and curves around my bicep. He laughs, and it tickles behind my ear.
I touch the catch.
It shatters under my fingertips, something dark and malevolent and HUNGRY swarming through the room with a sound like birds’ wings and a gasp like a thousand creatures have just come to life.
The force that ricochets off the walls should belong to a thousand ghosts, but there’s only one. I catch the shape of it as it swirls into form; a girl with the shadow of long dark hair and furious eyes. Then she vanishes down the hall. A moment later there’s a scream, and then another.
I turn slowly, and meet Jeremy’s terrified gaze. “It’s a snare,” I whisper. “I threw a snare somehow. We didn’t get her story. We gave her back her soul.”
About the Author
Jamie is an MG and YA writer, among other things. She has a minor shoe addiction, major coffee addiction, and the ability to read multiple books in a single day if left uninterrupted. Christmas is her favorite holiday: colorful lights, peppermint candy, and sweet, sappy stories included.