Welcome to day THREE 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 #23.
Marni dangled the key in front of her face. It looked old to Jo, worn, a cliché of a key rather than the real thing, round at one end with a slim shaft ending in an irregular set of teeth. The broken teeth of a mad fool, Jo thought, and giggled.
Marni frowned at the noise and shrugged, closing the distance between them. “The hotel’s under renovation or something,” she shrugged. “Apparently, like, every key is different.”
“Yeah, we got one of the real old ones.” Jo tapped her foot, waiting. “These bags aren’t getting any lighter.”
“So put them down.” Marni frowned down at the lock, where she was wiggling the key. At last, a click. “Aha!” She gestured theatrically toward the door before opening it. “Room… uh, twenty-three awaits.”
“Great,” Jo muttered and pushed past. She dropped the luggage with a soft thud on the bed and stretched her arms, groaning. Marni followed, closing the door behind her. Soft light from floor lamps revealed a homey sort of room, soft rugs and pillows and photos of New England over the centuries, neither bland hotel décor nor the all-out embrace of old-hotel camp one could allow from a landmark like the Thornewood.
The room’s only nod to eccentricity, other than the key, was a flurry of index cards taped and tacked and stapled next to every conceivable item: light switches, lamps, doors, even the bed.
Marni raised her eyebrows, turned to say something, but stopped when she saw Jo giggling again, her brown eyes sparkling. When the laughter had passed, Jo shrugged, grinning. “It’s just… especially with the key, you expect the room to be weird, and then it’s so not weird, but then it’s… weird.”
“Uh huh. Help me unpack, fool.” But Marni was smiling, and when Jo giggled again at the echo of her thoughts about the key, the mad fool’s broken teeth, her partner laughed with her.
The pair unzipped and extracted and smoothed and hung in the standing wardrobe, which had its own index card, and Jo carried their toiletries to the surprisingly modern bathroom, the walls of which were also peppered with small white pieces of paper. Some were marked with small, blocky letters and some were typewritten, but before Jo had a chance to read them, Marni called to her from the bedroom.
Jo found her grinning into a drawer pulled open from a dresser the color of milk chocolate. Marni beckoned her closer; after a few more steps, Jo could see a square of paper taped to the inside bottom of the drawer.
“Check this out,” Marni grinned. She read from the card: “Fold clothes neatly before placing in the drawer. Close drawer carefully. Make sure drawer is fully closed with edges flush to the dresser.”
Jo smiled back. “They’re everywhere. All over the bathroom, too.”
“Oooh, I wanna see!”
Jo kissed Marni lightly on the forehead. “Later. We’re here a whole week. Unpack now.” She moved to the bed and began unzipping her suitcase. “Be sure to fold everything carefully before putting it away.”
Minutes later, Marni’s belongings were strewn through the dresser drawers. Something lacy hung outside the drawer, though Jo mentally gave her partner points for at least closing the thing. She took back the points at the sight of a tank top puddled around one of the dresser’s clawed feet. Rather than picking it up, Marni flounced onto the bed and opened their well-worn travel guide. Jo sighed and plucked the clothing from the floor, folded it in a few quick motions and then set it into the half-open dresser drawer, tucking Marni’s underwear in at the same time.
Jo looked around the room and sighed again, this time with contentment. Marni’s general chaos had been confined to just those two items. A different day, she might have strewn the contents of her suitcase everywhere. Jo smiled, thinking of Chicago and a frantic race at check-out to find a favorite shirt somehow left inside a lampshade.
In contrast, this room was neat. Orderly. Even the squares of paper and cardstock were placed at precise angles to the floor and walls. Some were worn, but not one of them had yellowed or torn. That made sense to Jo: If the hotel’s management was particular enough to post rules for everything, even the drawers, they were particular enough to keep the rules neat and easy to read.
For a moment, Jo’s mind swirled; she imagined flying up and out, a swooping camera view gliding through all the rooms of the Thornewood, all the hundreds and thousands of slips of paper and the herculean task of maintaining them all. Jo shivered, crashing back into her body, and then grinned. I’ll have to write that down, she thought.
She slipped onto the bed and nosed under one of Marni’s arms. The other woman laughed and pushed her gently away.
“I’m reading,” Marni said, holding up the travel guide. “Go study up on the rules. I wouldn’t want to turn off the lights the wrong way or anything.”
“Ugh, fine.” Jo clambered back off the bed. It surprised her how many cards decorated the walls. You forget after a few minutes, she thought, until you really pay attention. Some were in logical spots, next to switches and outlets and lamps, but others sat alongside framed pictures or in otherwise unadorned stretches of wall.
She let her eyes fall on the note between the room’s entry and the light switch there. “You’re going to want to pay attention,” she said over her shoulder. Marni grunted dismissively. Jo walked closer to the paper square and read: “Turn off main light whenever possible. Use bedside lamps after 10 p.m. There is a woman standing in the corner. Respecting these hours allows us to pass the savings on to you.”
“Wait, what?” Marni peered up at Jo, brow creased in a frown. Jo swung her gaze from corner to corner. Evening had darkened the room and shadowed its corners, but the overhead light still shone enough to show them as empty.
“I don’t know,” Jo answered.
Marni closed the book and slipped off of the bed, padded across the room to read the note herself: “Turn off main light whenever possible. Use bedside lamps after 10 p.m. There is a – holy shit.” She spun and stared into the corners, as Jo had.
“Holy shit,” Marni breathed again when she’d determined the corners were empty. The pair looked at each other, and then to the bathroom. Jo pointed to her own chest and then the open bathroom door. Marni nodded and handed her the travel guide. Jo took it, weighed the thick paperback in her hand, and raised her eyebrows. Marni shrugged.
“Okay then,” Jo whispered to herself, and leapt to the bathroom door. The room there was small, brightly lit, and utterly devoid of anyone lurking in corners. She uttered a laugh of relief.
“What the hell,” Marni said. She frowned and looked back to the note taped to the wall. The offending line remained.
“It’s a bad joke,” Jo decided.
“Let’s see.” Marni chose another index card at random, this one near an outlet. She frowned at it for a moment, then looked up at Jo. “Nothing weird.”
Jo sagged in relief and walked back to the bed, dropping the travel guide there with a whump. It hit the edge of the bed and slid to the floor. Jo cursed under her breath, bent to retrieve it, and then jerked back and away as if stung.
“What?” Marni asked. She laughed at Jo’s ridiculous expression of surprise.
“There’s a card,” Jo whispered, “in the corner.” She pointed. Marni crouched, and past the fallen book, past the edge of the bed, saw an index card taped to the wall in the corner just above the trim. She crouch-walked to it.
“Check floor for all personal items before check-out,” she read. “Any unclaimed items become property of the hotel after twenty-four hours. The woman is next to the bed.”
Marni started, but chuckled. It was a joke. She crouched a little lower, so that she could see the other side of the bed from underneath. A pair of bare legs and feet waited there. Marni started, and then thought: Jo. She chuckled to herself. There was a woman next to the bed.
“What? Why are you laughing?” Jo whispered in her ear. Marni turned to see her partner crouched next to her and felt a curious splintering of reason: Jo was next to her, but was across the bed.
Marni sprang, landed awkwardly half across the bed instead of vaulting it as she’d intended. Just as well, then, that the other side of the bed was clear. She swung her head from side to side, but the room was empty but for the two of them.
“Someone was there,” Marni said at Jo’s look of astonishment. “I saw feet. There was a woman next to the bed, just like the card said.”
Jo stood quickly and moved to the middle of the room. “I don’t like this. Let’s get out of here.”
“Agreed,” Marni nodded. “Fuck the suitcases.” She strode to the door and twisted the handle, but it wouldn’t turn. Marni tried again and again, her palm slickening with sweat, face reddening with exertion. She made a strangled sound between cry and whimper.
A card whispered under the door, across the carpet, and came to rest at Jo’s feet.
Jo whined deep in her throat, but bent to pick up the card. “No wandering the hallways after 8 p.m.” She looked up at Marni. “What time is it?”
Marni reluctantly pried her hands from the door handle and checked her watch. “Eight,” she whispered.
“I guess they’re serious about nobody in the halls.” Jo’s voice had taken on a dangerously wobbly quality. She turned the card over and read: “The woman is watching you from the bathroom.”
Marni swung around. Had something moved in the corner of her vision? A blur of pink flesh, a floating flash of dark hair? But no, the bathroom doorway was empty. Marni reached it in three long strides, anger carrying her, but the interior of the bathroom was just as empty.
“Get my cellphone,” she grunted to Jo. “They can’t lock us in. It’s illegal or something.” Moments later, Marni glared down at the square of plastic and silicon in her hand, jabbed one finger at 9-1-1. The ringing noise was a small comfort, and the Yankee drawl that followed brought a gasp of relief.
“Emergency services,” a man said. “What’s your emergency?”
“We’re locked in a damned hotel room at the damned Thornewood Hotel,” Marni spat.
“Thank you, ma’am,” the man answered. “Your safety is our priority. Please follow all posted rules. The woman has a knife. Enjoy your stay.”
Marni shrieked with anger and threw her phone. It bounced from wall to floor, screen cobwebbed with cracks. Jo moved to hold her, but Marni pushed away. “He said she has a knife!”
The television blared to life. Jo stared without comprehending at a blandly handsome newscaster. “In further developments,” he intoned, “everyone must follow the rules. The woman is coming for you now. Next up in sports: One woman learns the hard way to always follow the posted rules.”
“We’re following the fucking rules!” Marni screamed at the television, but it had already gone dark. She turned in time to see Jo make a whuffing noise and sprawl against the foot of the bed and then into the chaos of Marni’s mess of a suitcase, knocked there as if by an immense invisible hand.
Or an unseen running woman.
With a knife.
Marni saw the woman before she felt the hit that knocked her to the floor. As she fell, she caught glimpses of green-tinged flesh and long dark hair. A glimmer might have been a near-invisible knife, but Marni had no time to wonder at it, because she was fighting, on her back on the hotel room floor, swinging her arms at fists and knees that she could not see.
She closed her eyes, finding it easier to imagine a real attacker that way: Her stomach had been heaving at the woman’s flickering in and out of vision. It worked. Marni felt the rhythm of the woman’s blows and began moving her hands and legs to catch them. She was even able to lift the woman’s weight a little, gain leverage to push her off and away.
The knife came down in her shoulder.
Marni howled in pain and surprise. She opened her eyes wide, but shut them again at the horrific face now fully visible above her. Marni’s arms felt like lead, and the wound where the knife had lodged, throbbed with not just pain but outrage at the intrusion, the sense of something that should not be now interrupting her muscle and flesh. She kept one arm warding off the woman as best she could while scrabbling for a weapon with the other.
Her fingers closed upon a stiff piece of paper, brought it to her face. Marni risked opening her eyes. It was the index card that had slipped under the door. Not a weapon. More rules.
Marni gave up and let the woman’s blows land where they would. The rules got her in the end. She chuckled a little at the thought, and read aloud the card: “The woman is watching you from the bathroom.”
A great displacement of air, and the weight was off Marni so quickly she jerked to a sitting position. Her shoulder screamed at the movement, so she did as well. When she’d finished, she swung her head. Where had the woman gone?
There. In the bathroom doorway. A glimmer of naked skin. A furious face in the corner of her eye.
Marni tensed, but the flickers of flesh remained confined to the doorway. Jo groaned; Marni risked a glance to where her partner was stirring, and when she turned back, she could still feel and occasionally see her attacker there, across the room, trapped in the threshold.
The rules, Marni thought.
What had come before? The television? The phone call? Could she say what they’d said, or did she need the actual card? Marni thought back. No, one of those had said the woman had a knife, and the other caused her attack. Marni didn’t want to try repeating either phrase, and in any case, she couldn’t remember which was which or what was said.
She pushed herself off the ground and screamed again at the pain in her shoulder. There was no blood, no great wound there. The skin was undamaged, but Marni could feel where the knife had torn it aside.
What had come before? The feet. Marni had seen the woman’s feet. So it was the card near the floor, on the side of the bed. She hobbled over, muscles aching from fighting off the thing’s attack. Marni risked another glance, but yes, unhealthy skin and ratty hair still occasionally swooped into view at the bathroom doorway.
Marni knelt painfully and read aloud: “Check floor for all personal items before check-out. Any unclaimed items become property of the hotel after 24 hours. The woman is next to the bed.”
Another sense of movement. Marni peeked under the bed as she had before. Bare feet and legs showed on the other side.
“Jo,” Marni said, crawling to her partner’s side. “Baby. Come on, let’s move over here. Let’s move away from the bed.”
Jo looked at her groggily. “Whahappen?”
“I’ll explain later,” Marni smiled. “I think. But come stand over here by the television. Or,” she decided as Jo made it a few steps and slid back to the floor, “sit. Sit here by the television. That’s fine. No green feet over here.”
Okay. One last card to read. But then what? The door was jammed shut. Marni thought it might open in the morning, but how would she make it through the night with that thing seething in the corner? She could feel its hatred, the thing flickering next to the bed. Hours of that would drive her mad. Still, Marni felt she should go in order.
She limped to the door and read the card next to it: “Turn off main light whenever possible. Use bedside lamps after 10 p.m. There is a woman standing in the corner. Respecting these hours allows us to pass the savings on to you.”
The woman’s form disappeared from next to the bed. Marni caught a flicker of it moments later in the corner. So there was that. But that was the last card. Part of Marni was disappointed re-reading it had not undone whatever summoned the thing.
An idea, then.
Marni scrabbled in her travel bag, and then looked around at the other cards for something unlikely to be read. The card slid under the door? No, the pattern so far was one rule – at least for the woman – per card. Marni made a slow circuit of the room, giving a wide berth to the woman’s corner, and found a card in another shadowed corner, a little more than halfway down the wall but near enough other cards that it didn’t call attention to itself.
There, she uncapped the pen from her travel bag and wrote “The woman is gone forever.”
Marni felt a sense of emptiness at her back, the impression of someone having walked out of the room. She looked quickly to Jo, but she was still there, dazed, next to the television stand. The corner with the woman, though, was empty. No waves of anger. No quick flashes of skin.
The woman was gone. Presumably forever.
“I make the rules,” Marni grinned to herself, capping the pen. She helped Jo to her feet. “We’re getting out of here.”
Marni found another card near the door, one with innocuous rules about use of the ice machine down the hall. There, she wrote, “Guests may leave the room at will, even after hours.”
A click from the door. It swung open. As it did, a new card fluttered to the floor from outside, where it had been wedged. Marni read it quickly: “There is a man in the hallway.” A glance showed that the hallway was empty. The light was dim, reflecting from hundreds of square white pieces of paper Marni was sure hadn’t been there before. And wasn’t that something down toward the staircase? Something that could be a man’s figure?
Marni grinned again and took Jo’s hand. She made a mental note of where the nearest card was taped in the hallway, and bit the cap off her pen.
About the Author ANDY GRIESER
I have been an arts and entertainment writer and editor for 16 years at outlets including the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Microsoft Sidewalk, About.com and Tribune Corp’s Zap2it.com. I worked as research assistant for New York Times bestseller Jeff Guinn on “Something in the Blood” (a look at real practitioners of the vampire lifestyle on the 100th anniversary of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula”) and “The Dallas Cowboys: Our Story.” For more, please visit andygrieser dot com.