Welcome to day eleven 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 #37. Read if you dare!
Jake had a gnawing ‘Don’t go in there!’ feeling from the moment he and Ellie stepped out of the cab and onto the cracked sidewalk of the Thornewood Hotel. Something in his twenty-two-year-old frame craved survival and this place screamed death. Or maybe, ‘Clean me.’ Ellie skipped ahead of him, her pale hair swinging behind her, and gestured for him to pick up the pace.
“Come oooonnnn,” she sing-songed. “You’re not… scared, are you?”
Jake scoffed, but his palms were sweaty. The place was huge— seven stories of crooked windows, grim white brick, and generally neglected light fixtures. Not to mention the crumbling columns guarding the entrance like specters, and the eerie feeling all the skeletal trees on the property were watching him. Dumb, he knew, since they didn’t have eyes.
Jake pulled his scarf tighter around his neck, then hefted his and Ellie bags towards the entrance. The walk from the curb to the hotel steps was a good four-hundred feet with overgrown, sprawling lawns to either side of them. The fall air nipped at his cheeks and ears. Ahead, the lights flickered and otherwise failed to light the dark walkway. Damn, Jake wasn’t a believer, but this place was creepy.
Ellie squealed and turned back to him. “I can’t believe you’re finally taking me for a haunted retreat. I’ve only been asking—”
“Not forever.” Ellie smacked his arm. “Just since we met. And only to go to the very best haunts in the nation.”
“Really?” Jake narrowed his eyes at her as he skirted a thistle bush trying to claim a section of the sidewalk. “Gettysburg is one of the best? Or The French quarter? Seattle? Come on.”
“Hey, I know my haunts.” Ellie’s face turned dead serious and she pursed her mouth at him like she did whenever he told her there was no such thing as ghosts.
That face meant he was in the doghouse and at this moment, he did not want to piss her off before walking into America’s most haunted hotel— even if it was just paid actors and special effects inside. He sidled up next to her, put his chin on her shoulder and kissed her neck. “I’m sorry. I know you love your ghosts. That’s why we’re here, right?”
Ellie’s posture relaxed. She met Jake’s gaze. “Dying can be so lonely. The Afterlife shouldn’t have to be.”
She said that a lot. She said that the first night they met, six months ago when he was drunk and stumbling through campus in the middle of the night, and she appeared out of nowhere to help him find his dorm. He didn’t get that saying, but he nodded. “Then let’s go meet some of your ghouls.”
The inside of Thornewood was something straight out of Jake’s childhood nightmares. Creaking doors. Hideous wallpaper. Meager lighting… On second thought, maybe it was something straight out of an interior designer’s nightmares. Either way it gave him the feeling of insects crawling up and down his spine and he couldn’t quite catch his breath. He hated bugs.
The reception desk was staffed by a single soul— a woman that could only be described as icy. As they approached, she watched them with unblinking eyes and a death stare that would make a grown man wet his pants. Not that Jake did. He just understood how it could happen.
“Good evening,” she said. She drew out the words like long, dangerous daggers. “How may I assist you?”
“Checking in for Hammond. Jake. We have a room for the weekend.” Ellie grabbed Jake’s elbow and beamed at him, then turned back to the receptionist. “It’s our first haunted retreat. Together, I mean. I’ve haunted lots of places.”
The receptionist eyed Ellie and let out an amused hum. She pulled out a quill— who the hell uses a quill?— and made a few notes on a worn piece of paper. “Very well. You’ll be in… suite #37. Be aware: our rooms have been known to manifest their occupants’ greatest fears, and no, maintenance will not clean up after your nightmares.”
Jake blinked. Was that a joke?
The receptionist went on. “Our dining hall is located in the East wing, first floor, just down that hall.” She pointed. “Our chef is rather fond of entrails so I hope neither of you have gout.”
Jake started to ask out loud this time if she was serious, but Ellie stepped on his foot, and he shut his mouth. Like Ellie cared. All the time they’d been together and he’d hardly seen her eat. A lanky bellhop appeared from behind the desk and set to messing with keys behind the counter. The receptionist didn’t acknowledge him.
“You’re in luck,” she said. “Tonight is our weekly Séance with Madam Leota in the forgotten dance hall.”
Ellie shrieked with delight.
The bell hop turned. “We have a dance hall?”
“My point precisely.” The receptionist gave a smug grin and pushed an ancient map towards Jake and Ellie. “It begins at midnight. You can take the elevators up to your room or down to the dance hall if you wish you attend. Though the one on the left tends to bleed on first-time guests, so keep that in mind.”
“B-bleed?” Jake looked from Ellie to the receptionist. “Is she kidding? Are you kidding?”
Ellie’s tinkling laughed filled the air. She slapped his arm. Again. Her frame was so slight he didn’t really feel it. “Come on, Jake. Let’s go unpack and grab something for dinner before the séance. This is too perfect.”
Jake frowned. “It’s a Thursday. Who holds a séance on a Thursday?”
The receptionist snapped her fingers and a second bellhop appeared. This one had dark hair, kohl-rimmed eyes and— Jake’s eyes bulged. There was something off about the bellhop. His face. He was missing… every time he tried to think the word, it slipped away from him. It was only after he took their bags and left, after he was out of earshot and Ellie had dragged Jake towards the elevators that it came to him.
Jake grabbed Ellie’s chin and tipped her head up. “The bellhop… he had no mouth.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You didn’t see it? No mouth. How does that even—”
Ellie scoffed. “For someone who doesn’t believe in ghosts, you’re getting awfully creeped out, babe. I didn’t notice anything, except he seemed like a sad bellhop. Now, let’s go.”
The receptionist cleared her throat. “Mr. Hammond?”
Jake stopped and turned.
“I nearly forgot.” Her stern expression morphed into a frigid grin. “Welcome to Thornewood. I hope it’s an experience you never forget.”
Jake glanced around at the cobweb ridden foyer, towards the elevator that might bleed on him, and gulped. Yeah, he seriously doubted he would ever forget this trip. Not for the rest of his life.
The forgotten dance hall looked exactly like Jake thought it would. Couches and chairs draped with corpse-white sheets lined the walls, which were snaked with cracks in the poorly done venetian-plaster. A lifeless chandelier hung from the ceiling and swayed, back and forth, back and forth— on a noose. The dust was thick enough to leave tracks in. Not to mention the ‘grand entrance’ doors had to be propped open with skull-shaped door stops and were X-ed off with caution tape. On the stage in the corner sat four chairs, arranged for a string-quartet that probably couldn’t find the place. If Ellie didn’t have such an innate sense of direction, they both would have ended up lost in some basement of this creepy hotel.
In the center of the dance floor were a circle of lit candles, flickering, though Jake was pretty sure there was no wind inside. He didn’t feel a breeze anyway. In fact, the air was deathly still. Clung to his skin like a wet blanket.
“I think I’m sweaty. Are you sweaty?” Jake rolled his shoulders.
“I never sweat.” Ellie shrugged at him. “I’m always perfectly fine with any temperature.”
That was true, now that Jake thought about it. She hadn’t complained about the heat over the summer, and she only put a sweater on when he mentioned how cold it was. Resilient little thing.
Between two candles on the farthest side of the circle perched a woman— her legs crisscrossed and hands on her knees. She had wild blue hair, pale, sunken cheeks, with bright red lips and eyes such a brilliant light-brown they nearly glowed yellow. A black shawl encircled her shoulders— her whole frame was wrapped in black, actually—and as they approached, Jake tried to pick out the tune she hummed. It wasn’t something he’d heard before. Off key. Ominous. Like a warning.
“Welcome.” She punctuated each word. Well. Come. “I am Madam Leota. Please, take a seat between the candles.”
Ellie slipped into the space nearest the door, and Jake dropped in beside her. She raised her eyebrows at him and ‘oohed’, but he rolled his eyes. He put on his best I’m-not-freaked-out-no-sir-I’d-rather-be-fishing face and leaned back onto his hands.
Ellie’s whisper tickled his ear. “Excited?”
The orange flame cast a bit of a glow on her pale, porcelain skin. Shadowed her dimples and glinted off her teeth.
“No. I’m not excited. But I can tell you are.” Jake stroked her cheek. “I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen you blush.”
Ellie groaned. “Shut up. I don’t blush.”
“Whoa, Tiger.” Jake held up a hand in mock defense. “Deep breaths.”
“I don’t breathe either.”
Jake made a ‘what?’ face, but Ellie just stuck out her tongue. “And you shouldn’t either. At least not in here.”
Jake laughed. “Yeah. A few good breaths in this tomb and I’ll give myself Farmer’s Lung.”
“If only that was the worst of your problems.” Ellie smirked.
Jake shook his head. They hadn’t known each other long. Six months really wasn’t that long. But he loved her. Loved her, her weird obsession with death and ghosts, and all the weird crap she said sometimes. He was whipped. A goner.
A few other patrons stumbled into the dance hall and Madam Leota directed them to the circle. A couple of guys, a few girls. An elderly couple with a cotton-ball of a dog. They each made a show of examining the room. Then they all waited.
And the longer they waited, the creepier it got. Like the night was pressing in on them. Like silence was caving in on them. Like something was coming and there was no way to escape it. A bolt of lightning briefly lit the dance hall. A second later, thunder cracked. Panic clawed at Jake’s throat. He was about to ask what time it was when a loud bell tolled. Bong… Bong… Bong… All the way to twelve.
It was finally midnight.
The air shifted. Got colder. Jake told himself he was imagining things. Ellie squeezed in by his side, but it wasn’t out of fear. While the other guests huddled with terror on their faces, Ellie’s face was full of mirth. She was 100% in her element.
Madam Leota cleared her throat and raised her hands into the air. “I thank you for joining me this evening. Because you are here, I assume you all believe in communicating with the departed?”
There was a general murmur of assent. Ellie squeezed Jake’s hand and he pressed his lips together. He wouldn’t get himself kicked out for saying it was a bunch of hocus pocus. Especially not now, when it kinda felt like maybe it wasn’t.
“Very well.” Madam Leota shut her eyes. “Let us hold hands, and begin with a prayer of welcome.”
Jake laced fingers with Ellie and turned awkwardly to the guy on his right. The dude wore a scarf up over the bottom half of his face, so all Jake saw were his wide, horrified eyes. They held hands, and Jake tried to give him a squeeze of assurance. The dude nodded but his eyes remained fearful and his whole body shook. Even the cotton-ball dog trembled.
“Spirits, wherever you are, awaken to the sound of my call. Near or far, come and speak with us. We desire your wisdom. Your guidance from the Beyond.”
Leota paused. The flames of the candles crackled and a few went out. The air felt about ten degrees colder than it did a second ago.
Scarf guy started hyperventilating. He turned to Jake. “She didn’t— she didn’t—”
The scarf muffled his voice. “She didn’t ask for benevolent spirits. Or protection from— non-benevolent ones. We are so dead…”
“Listen,” Leota commanded.
A bell tinkled. Was it in the room? Someone outside the room? Jake tried to turn and look, but Ellie yanked his arm and pulled him back.
“I sense a very determined spirit among us.” Madam Leota’s gaze swept over the séance-goers until it landed on Jake. “You. Something dreadful is coming your way.”
Jake jolted back. “Me? Are you sure?”
Beside him, Ellie’s mouth dropped open but her eyes were happy. She loved this.
Madam Leota nodded. “A spirit in this room wants you dead.”
Everyone gasped (except Ellie, who made a face of trying to conceal her laughter), and Scarf guy threw his arms around Jake. “Leave! Don’t let it get you!”
Jake shrugged free of Scarf’s death-grip. “W-w-why me?”
“You believe it then?” Ellie’s face was just an inch from his.
“Not now.” Jake gently pushed her away and focused on Madam Leota. “This isn’t funny.”
“I’m not making a joke.” Madam Leota dropped the hands of those beside her and crawled over to Jake. Her breath was hot on his face and smelled of licorice. “Leave now. Or die.”
“Fine.” Jake shot up and tripped backwards towards the door.
“Run!” Scarf man screamed.
Jake tore through the caution tape and into the hall. He stubbed his toe on the damn skull-shaped door stopper and swore, but kept running. He reached a fork at the end of the hall but couldn’t for the life of him remember how to get back to the lobby. This place had no signage, no doors… Lots of windows. But he couldn’t see anything. Everything was blocked out by a heavy rain thudding against the panes of glass. That’s right— a storm had begun.
Ellie appeared beside him and rubbed his back. “Hey, you okay?”
“Uh, no.” Jake’s muscles tensed and he glared at the floor. “I was just told by a medium that some determined spirit wants me dead.”
“Why is that funny?” Jake folded his arms and stepped away from her.
“I just thought you said the whole thing was nonsense, so…” Ellie tipped her head. “You’re getting awfully worked up over nothing, aren’t you?”
Jake let out a frustrated sigh. “Yeah, I guess so.”
“Come on.” Ellie looped her arm through Jake’s elbow and dragged him towards the left, knowing where to go, even though he was hopelessly lost. “It’s late. Let’s get some rest.”
Jake nodded to himself. It was late. They passed portrait after portrait of severe looking men and women, all staring down their noses at the couple. Jake thought, for a second he was sure, their eyes followed him as he passed. He shook his head. That woman had thrown him off. Old bat. Madam Leota was probably paid to single out guests and cast doom at them, and she just happened to focus on Jake. He was fine. No one wanted him dead… Did they?
Suite #37 resided on the first floor of guest rooms, which was actually the second story of the hotel and just three doors down from the elevators. (Jake had insisted they take the one least likely to bleed on them. Again.) He gave the hall a cursory glance, left to right, up and down. He hadn’t paid much attention when they came up earlier to unpack, but now, with the darkness complete and the waning candlesticks mounted to the walls, finding an escape route proved to be impossible. A knot formed in his stomach and his gut tightened around it— no clear EXIT signs. Anywhere.
Ellie slid the ancient gold key into the lock, twisted, and opened the door with a creek to match a crow’s caw. The room smelled like mothballs. The comforter hugged the full-sized bed, but it brought Jake no comfort— a deep maroon thing, reminiscent of the color of dried blood. More hideous wallpaper clutched the room. Bits of it pealed towards the ceiling. Jake had this terrible sense it might roll down and suffocate him in his sleep.
The room had looked much, much less intimidating before he’d gone to the séance.
Jake unzipped and rifled through his suitcase, having refused to unpack. On principle. If they wouldn’t be leaving, then he just wanted to brush his teeth and go to bed. With any luck, he could convince Ellie to leave with him in the morning. And hopefully without having to eat any innards for breakfast. Ellie dropped onto the bed and spread out. Her grin frustrated the hell out of Jake.
He entered the bathroom and closed the door behind him. The icy tiles of the floor bit into his bare feet. Air hit his face from a hole—a legit hole— in the upper corner of the room. The mirror, spotted with age, reflected a haggard Jake brushing his teeth. When did he get such deep bags under his eyes? When did he get so pale? Or his hair so… was that a gray hair???? Snap out of it, man. He scrubbed his teeth harder.
Something hissed behind him.
He whipped around.
Nothing. Maybe steam from the radiator.
Then something crawled up his leg. He jerked back and shook his legs, as a spider fell from his knee and scurried away. Stupid, ugly little thing. He hated bugs. Was terrified of them as a kid. He spit in the sink and turned on the water to rinse out his mouth. But instead of water, something red came out.
Jake gaped in disbelief. Crimson, bubbling, steaming. Was it blood? His lips curled back and shut off the faucet. Think, Jake. There’s no way that just happened. Not blood. Something else.
Jake chuckled when it hit him. Of course. This place was old. It was probably rust. Rusty water from disused pipes. Still, his hand hesitated before turning the faucet back on. What had the receptionist said about the rooms and fears? He exhaled, then turned on the water. It ran clean. There. Just had to rinse out the pipes. He pocketed his toothbrush and toweled off his mouth, as something else crawled on his neck. Damn it. He batted another spider away.
Then there were several of them. Pouring from the open hole in the ceiling. Black, fuzzy spiders, but also roaches and beetles. None of them smaller than a quarter. Were they real? Imagined? When the receptionist said ‘manifest’ did she mean in real life or his head?
“Ellie?” Jake didn’t scream, he didn’t really want to, but he did back up. He swatted left and right, trying to shake free of the bugs as they leapt from the wall towards him. They felt real. “Ellie, this place is infested!”
He brushed himself off. Picked up his feet and winced when he felt their hard shells crack under his weight. Maybe he was imaging them. They weren’t real, they weren’t real, they weren’t real. Jake opened the door and hurried out of the bathroom, slamming it behind him. He smashed a few bugs in the process. It wasn’t enough. More would come. Already a few had squeezed under the door.
“Ellie, we can’t stay here.”
Ellie was not in the room. It was dark— just a pale slice of yellow moonlight peeking through the open window, casting shadows Jake swore had fingers and were reaching for him. Had she left while he was brushing his teeth? He called for her but again, there was no answer. He hadn’t heard the door open. Where would she go anyway?
“Ellie?” Jake’s heart thudded in his chest. His mouth went dry as he tiptoed through the room towards the window. The bugs skittered along with him. “Ellie?”
“I’m right here.”
Jake’s hand shot to his chest and he swore. “Where the hell were you hiding?”
Ellie stood behind him, glowing faintly in the moonlight. “I wasn’t. I’ve been here the whole time.”
“No.” Jake straightened to his full height. “You were gone. I came out of the bathroom and—”
“Jake. I never left. Cross my heart.” Her pale face and eyes seemed… almost translucent. Like he could see through her.
“We need to go.” Jake grabbed the suitcase and zipped it up. “There are bugs crawling all over that bathroom— here look— and I swear, I’m seeing things. Blood in the faucet and moving eyes in the pictures— come on, don’t make that face. I tried. I did what you wanted, but I can’t stay here another minute. Let’s go.”
Ellie sighed. “But we just got home.”
Jake was halfway to the door when his steps halted. “Here.” He turned to face her. “You mean we just got here.”
The bugs’ ticking-creeping noises filled the silence. He still wasn’t sure if they were real or in his head.
“I said what I meant.” Ellie’s normally sweet smile turned a bit darker.
Jake stiffened. Ellie didn’t appear to be translucent. She was translucent. He saw right through her. To the window ripe with moonlight. To the bugs swarming the carpet. Right to the sharpened knife she held behind her back.
“What are you doing?” Jake backed up. Bugs crunched under his feet. He had to find the doorknob.
This isn’t real. This isn’t real. This isn’t real.
“Come on, Jake.” Ellie stepped, or floated, towards him. Her feet were missing. “This is all I’ve wanted since we met. To bring you home with me.”
“All those haunted places.” The puzzle pieces slipped into Jake’s mind, found their places among each other, and festered like an unremoved splinter. She never ate. Never got hot or cold, never got lost. Never talked about a living family— just about where to find dead people. Now, he saw right through her.
Ellie was the spirit Madam Leota had warned him about.
“Why me?” Jake still couldn’t find the doorknob. He didn’t dare turn away from her to find it. Somehow, getting stabbed in the back literally would suck so much worse than just being stabbed… but to be honest, he didn’t want to be stabbed at all. Not by his girlfriend. Why hadn’t he trusted his gut?
“Why you? I love you.” Ellie laughed and brought the knife in front of her chest, close to her un-beating heart. Those two things— laughing and imminent death?— should not have gone together. Ever. “I’ve told you so many times. Dying can be so lonely. The Afterlife shouldn’t have to be. I just wanted someone to share my Afterlife with.”
“But I’m a skeptic!” Jake tripped backwards and landed against the door with a crash. His head stung. The bugs crawled up his legs and into his shirt. His body trembled. He couldn’t think beyond the tiny feet all over his body, the pincers breaking his skin, the girl he loved holding a knife to her chest. Why bugs? Why blood? Why Ellie?
She tipped her head. “You believe now, right?”
It was hard not to. Jake didn’t want to beg. He didn’t want to plead for his life. But he also didn’t want to die. “Ellie, please.”
She held the knife high above her head and grinned down at him. “Welcome to the hotel, babe.”
About the Author
In college, she had a full scholarship to study Theater Arts, but changed her major to Library Information Technology after she got sick of the drama in drama.
She currently lives in Pennsylvania with her husband (when he’s not on rig), four children, and pet rabbit Bugsy. (Although they’re debating getting a pet fox and a pug, to be named Sherlock and Watson.)
When she’s not homeschooling, working, reading or writing, Jamie can be found shaking her groove thing in a Zumba class, sweating and cursing life in Pi-Yo, or baking cupcakes.