Welcome to day fourteen 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 #13!
Samantha didn’t want the room. Call her superstitious, but the “13” stamped on the brass keychain didn’t seem like a lucky number for anyone, let alone someone in her predicament. “You’re sure I can’t change it? I mean some hotels don’t even have a thirteenth floor…”
The older woman behind the counter hadn’t bothered to give Sam her name, nor did she wear a name tag beyond the plaque which announced she was the “Night Desk Manager.” Sam doubted the stodgy looking grey haired woman with the pathetically dated makeup complete with blue eyeshadow and too-pink blush was actually a manager. More than likely she was just the only receptionist on duty this late, and the desk title was intended to keep people from getting too uppity.
Either way, she was the only soul Sam had seen since she walked in. If Sam couldn’t convince her to assign her a room, preferably a different one than 13, Sam would be shit out of luck.
“Unfortunately, that’s the only room available to you.” It was an odd turn of phrase, and Sam opened her mouth to call the woman on the implied snub, but she went on. “I’m sure you saw the construction on your way up the drive?”
Sam hadn’t arrived via the driveway, and she hadn’t seen any scaffolding from the side entrance she’d walked up to, but there was no room for argument in the woman’s tone, so she nodded obediently. Assuming she’d arrived the way normal folks did, Sam would have seen it, and so see it she had. She forced a tight smile in response to the wide one on the Night Desk Manager’s face.
“Well, there you are.” For a blink, the red-lipsticked smile seemed to gain an edge like a bloody knife, and Sam shook her head and stepped back. She closed her eyes for a breath and when she opened them again, the smile was just a smile once more. “Are you quite all right?”
“Fine,” Sam hurried to assure her. “Fine. Just tired.” Nothing to see here, lady. Just give me a room, and I’ll be out of your frizzy hair.
The receptionist’s eyes narrowed slightly, her forced joviality freezing just a touch. “You could head one town over if it worries you that much. There’s a Best Western maybe thirty minutes down the road. Closer if you speed just a little.”
Considering Sam had dumped her car in a ditch a good two-hour walk in the opposite direction, the Best Western might as well have been on the moon. The woman’s smile shifted to something more akin to a cruel smirk, as if she knew damn well Sam wouldn’t be driving anywhere tonight. Once more, Sam blinked, and the expression on the receptionist’s face was back to the forced professional welcome when she looked again.
She was tired, she reminded herself. Far too tired to deal with this shit tonight. “Fine, I’ll take the room I guess.”
“Excellent,” the woman agreed, holding out the key to her by the brass tag. Sam took the key and gasped as the cool metal shocked her – the spark flaring visibly in the dim foyer. The other woman didn’t seem to notice. “Enjoy your stay. If you need anything, I’ll be right here at the desk all night.”
It sounded more like a threat than a promise.
Shaking her still stinging hand, Sam nodded sullenly and headed down the hallway the woman had gestured to. Quiet lingered over the hall, and the heavy carpet swallowed the sound of her heavy footsteps in her too-new hiking boots. She couldn’t hear anything as she passed the other rooms, and she guessed it was due to the late hour, though for the life of her she couldn’t remember ever being in a hotel without a single unruly room full of partiers or loudly screwing couples or alternately, loudly arguing couples.
Maybe for once she was the troublesome guest. Sam heard the thought in her mind in Aiden’s voice, and she shivered, before chuckling to herself, the laugh coming out just slightly deranged as it broke the silence.
Getting paranoid, she thought to herself. Aiden’s not here. Not yet. He will be, though, she promised herself. She just had to figure this mess out, and then she’d be able to call Aiden and tell him where to come find her. He would, of course; he’d always promised he’d be there if she needed him.
She shoved down the thought that he’d made the promise to someone else recently, too. That didn’t matter. And she’d dealt with it, hadn’t she?
A flicker from the lights in the hall distracted her from her bitter thoughts, and she realized she’d reached the door marked “13.” The key stuck in the lock, and the knob turned with a rusted screech that had her cringing and checking the hallway behind her, hoping she hadn’t drawn attention from any of the other guests or the bitch back at the desk. Sam pushed open the door, finding it far heavier than she expected. She extracted the key and stepped through, gasping as the door slammed behind her.
“Get your shit together, Sam. Christ,” she admonished herself. She was letting the day get to her, just as she’d promised herself she wouldn’t. It was over and done with; Aiden was free now, and he’d be with her soon. He would.
Shaking her head fiercely, she flicked on the light. The dim bulb over the bed revealed a dingy room cluttered with rickety looking faux antiques. It was cleaner than some of the shitty motels she’d stayed in, but only barely, and the musty scented air hung oppressively over everything like a layer of dust. There wasn’t a fan, nor an AC unit that she could see, and she twisted to walk past the scant room at the end of the bed to reach the heavily curtained window, tugging the brocade to one side to reveal dirty panes that looked back into an overgrown courtyard. The moonlight just barely filtered down between the tall walls of the hotel, and the dim light cast the tangle of vines and shrubs into shadows that seemed to twist as Sam watched.
She shuddered and slung the curtain shut again, deciding it was better to sleep in a stuffy room than beside a window anyone in the courtyard might be able to look into. She looked back at the room and scowled. Ten bucks said the woman at the desk tossed her in this dump just for spite. If they were renovating, this room clearly was the last one on the list.
“Bitch,” she muttered, wishing she had the option to just leave after all. But it was here or sleep in the woods, and the walk to the hotel through the dark had been bad enough. She didn’t dare risk a trek for the Best Western at this time of night.
No, she was stuck here, and she knew it. With a huff, she pulled her backpack off, setting it on the bed and digging for toothpaste and a brush. Her mouth still tasted like copper, the lingering flavor now with a slightly rotten taint after the hours. She’d rinsed it out dozens of times since she’d left Aiden’s, but the awful taste seemed determined to linger. Sam moved to the bathroom door and was unsurprised to find it miniscule and grungy. A quick glance behind the shower curtain told her she’d have to deal with the grime on her skin for now: there looked to be enough mold for a cheese factory on the tiles.
Once again she cursed the night desk bitch under her breath. No way this hell hole was accidently assigned to her. The hotel looked too nice in the hallway for the state of the room to be acceptable.
Shaking her head and promising herself she’d leave at first light, Sam turned on the sink and waited for the rusty water to run somewhat clear. It wasn’t totally clean though, as she discovered after she brushed. It must have tainted the toothbrush; if anything her mouth tasted worse than it had before she brushed. She gagged, fighting back the urge to vomit. Mouthwash was added to her mental list of things she needed on the run.
Maybe Aiden would bring some with him when they met up. Yeah, she told herself, that would save her some cash. She’d wait for him.
With that thought to ease some of her frustration, she returned to the bedroom and slid between the sheets, not bothering to change her clothes. God only knew what filth caked the sheets. After seeing the bathroom, she figured her disgusting clothes would likely up the quality of the room instead of lowering it.
Sam did have to toe off her hiking boots after a moment. Sleeping in them felt too strange for her, and there were blisters on her heels after the trek from her car to the hotel. She leaned out of the bed to set them right beside the backpack to the left of her. If she needed to leave in a hurry, all she’d have to do was slip into the boots and take off running.
No one saw her leaving town except Aiden, and there was no way he’d turn her in to the authorities. No, she was safe enough for now. Tomorrow she’d add more distance between her and the cops. Tonight she needed rest and sleep. With that in mind, she curled up and forced herself to close her eyes and think of nothing but her future with Aiden. They’d get a little cabin somewhere, she decided, by a lake maybe with a dock and a pretty porch swing. Far away from anyone who’d try to separate them. Yeah, that’d be perfect.
She drifted off to sleep with a smile on her face and blood still under her fingernails.
Sam blinked awake to the sound of scratching against glass and a flutter of heavy fabric. She stretched, scowling again at the musty smell of the pillowcase and turned to the source of the sound, now louder, more insistent.
The window was open.
She sat up straight, eyes on the window and the fingerlike tendrils of vines snaking their way through the scant inch between the sill and the slowly raising window. Heart racing, Sam lunged, slamming the window back down with a crash and flipping the lock.
At once, the screeching sound ceased, and the curtains stopped moving. She breathed deep, choking out a laugh into the thick silence of the night. She must have opened it in her sleep.
She ran a hand over her face and sighed raggedly. Sam forced herself up and into the tiny bathroom to splash tepid water on her face, chasing away the stress of the window and nightmare she couldn’t quite remember.
She was halfway back to the bed when the phone rang, sending her heart pounding in her throat again. Gingerly, her hand shaking more than she’d like, Sam reached for the phone and answered. “Hello? Who is this?”
Static crackled in her ear, and this a familiar voice broke through the noise.
“Samantha?” Aiden. It was Aiden! He’d found her, somehow; she didn’t care how, just that he had, as he always did.
“Aiden? Where are you? Are you on your way, babe?”
More static cut in, and she clutched the headset to her ear, hoping to hear him saying he would be there soon. “Samantha… Oh God, what have you done? What did you do?”
His voice held no affection, only the same horror it had when he’d found her in his bedroom, Lydia sprawled on the floor before her. He hadn’t understood then, but he should understand now, damn it! “You know what I did – you know why I had to do it! She was using you, baby. She was just using you!”
The phone cut out without even a dial tone, leaving a painful silence in her ear. She pounded on the phone frantically, trying desperately to get Aiden back on the line, even daring to call his home number as she’d warned herself not to. Nothing worked. She slammed down the headset with a curse, almost knocking the phone off the nightstand. As she caught it, she glanced down at the wall, only then noticing the phone cord lay on the floor instead of being plugged in.
Sam stared at it, mouth dry and still tasting of blood.
She must have tugged it loose while she was on the phone.
Simple explanation. No need to stress.
She tore her gaze away and forced herself to crawl back into the small bed, the room feeling half the size it had before with the walls and ceiling seeming to press in on her in the dark. Sam curled up and closed her eyes tightly, trying desperately to will herself back to sleep and that dream with Aiden, to think of anything but the sad excuse for a room closing in.
The window screeched again, this time louder and more ragged like the cackling of some devious witch waiting on the other side of the glass. Despite her determination to keep her eyes shut tight, Sam found herself turning over to watch as the window opened itself little by little.
The moon seemed to shine brighter than it had before she’d gone to sleep, clearly illuminating the fact that no one stood in the courtyard. No hands were there to lift the window, only the vines she’d seen before, now spiky and covered in thorns like some misbegotten rose bush when she would have sworn before they were smooth and curling like ivy. As she watched, beginning to tremble in fear, those sharp-spined branches forced their way in the window one by one, then two by three by so many more than she could count. More than she would have thought could possibly fit through the window. The weight of them forced the window open wider, shattering the glass and cracking the walls all around the frame.
More vines folded themselves in half to creep up the wall holding the window; others fell to the floor, weaving a vicious looking rug over the stained carpet.
Others strained straight ahead over empty space to reach the bed, thorned vines launching themselves at the blanket like miniature grappling hooks, snagging the fabric and inching closer and closer to where Sam still lay. Watching them approach, she tried to move, mentally straining to roll herself off the bed and reach for her shoes, but her body refused to move. One by one, the vines stretched out over her form, pinning her firmly beneath the blankets.
Now she could move, wriggling helpless beneath the bindings, but her struggles only caused the thorns to pierce the blanket’s fabric enough to reach skin, scratching at her legs and arms, causing her to cry out in pain and panic.
Still the vines came: covering her from feet to neck with a thick quilt of thorns, wet drops of blood gleaming against the darkness. Finally, the vines stopped moving over the bed, but the others, those against the wall, kept creeping up and up, pulling away from the building to form a figure in the empty space between the bed and the bathroom.
A figure that stood a few inches shorter than Sam’s 5’8” of height. A figure with vines trailing down like long curls. Parts of the mass of vegetation broke away on either side, and Sam swore she could see a torso with arms, then legs that stepped forward jerkily, bringing the dimly lit figure closer and closer to where Sam was pinned to the bed.
It reached the bedside and leaned down, thorny locks falling down over its shoulder to smack Sam in the face, a thorn snagging the corner of her eye causing it to water.
Then the figure spoke. At first, the voice was harsh and hard to understand, but with each word it grew clearer, stabilizing into a voice she knew all too well. A voice she shouldn’t ever be able to hear again.
“We were supposed to be friends. How could you? You knew how I felt about him!” The words were familiar, replayed from Sam and Lydia’s last confrontation, but it hadn’t been Lydia who said them. The vine creature continued to speak, parroting back Sam’s own words in a verbal attack. “Some friend you are. How soon did you fuck him, huh bitch? Did you even care that it would hurt me? Did you?!”
A vine arm struck out, hitting Sam across the face with all the weight and force of a certain, now destroyed, bedside table lamp. Her head and neck jerked painfully against the bindings holding her fast. Blood flowed from a cut on her forehead, stinging her eyes. She tried to blink it away, to see her attacker more clearly, but the blow made her dizzy and her vision swam.
The Lydia form went on, voice rising strident and angry in a way that should have brought other guests of the hotel or the bitch at the desk pounding against the door in complaint. No one came.
“He loves me, you know. He always has. How’s it feel to be his stand-in? To know he’s thinking of me when he fucks you?”
Sam tried to respond, tried to argue with the figure which moment by moment grew to look more like her former friend, the one who’d taken her Aiden from her, but her mouth was clumsy. “No… Aiden… He loves me. He does.”
The figure struck her again and again, sending splatters of blood up to splash across the empty space were Lydia’s face flickered in and out, some of the red smeared across her mouth. Sam wondered if Lydia could taste the blood the way she had for hours.
“Aiden never loved you. Aiden couldn’t love you. You’re nothing. Not to him. Not to me. You… are… nothing!”
Screaming incoherently now, the Lydia figure struck Sam again and then lunged forward, weight pinning her to the bed and sending the thorns pressing further through the blanket, digging ragged furrows in her skin.
Before Sam could yell out in pain, the figure reached forward with its hook covered arms, wrapping them tightly about her throat and squeezing, just as Sam had squeezed the life out of Lydia hours before.
Sam tried to speak, to move her arms to try to fight the thing off, to cry for help, or just beg for her life, but the vicious vines only tightened, cutting off all air or chance on sound.
Blood still running into her eyes and seeping from where the thorns cut into her throat as they strangled her, Sam clung to consciousness just long enough to see the ceiling fall down upon her as Room 13 collapsed in on itself.
The Night Desk Manager sighs as the familiar pains in her stomach, like those of a terrible hunger, ease then fade completely. The hunger belongs to the Room, as does the urgency under her skin whenever a proper occupant approaches the Thornewood. With it comes the key blinking into existence in the exact center of the counter, one that she may only give to a guest with an aura reeking of blood and betrayal.
This one will leave the Room sated for quite some time, if the Night Desk Manager knows her business, and she does. Tomorrow, her daylight counterpart will find news in the paper of a woman’s body found in some distant town, strangled to death if the Night Desk Manager has read the Room’s intentions correctly, and the futile hunt for the killer will continue. Perhaps the mortal authorities will find a car or a bloody pair of hiking boots, but not the killer herself, not that “Samantha” who held the world and her victim in such contempt.
But the Room has never been mortal or bound to human laws. Its justice is its own, one there is no escaping.
Down the hall, there comes a shimmy in the fabric of the floor, and the dim lamps clatter for a beat. Then all is still. The Night Desk Manager does not need to look to know the door labeled “13” has disappeared once again, now that the Room has eaten its fill.
Then, the key reappears on her desk just as it always does, a smear of blood across the brass number. The Night Desk Manager hums contentedly and reaches to clean the key with her handkerchief. The key then vanishes once more, and she turns to note that this latest guest has paid her debts in full.
About the Author
C. L. McCollum spends her time delving into the wonder of the world. She’s always been drawn to the “How” and the “Why” and the “Is this even possible?” While her debut novel is on the road to publication, C. L. has contributed to multiple anthologies, and also co-edits a charity anthology series known as “Clichés for a Cause” and is a founding member of the Herding Cats Press #MimosaThursday podcasts. Currently, C. L. is keeping it weird in Austin, TX with the love of her life and their various furry roommates.