Welcome to day thirteen 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 a special key, one that is very old…one that many didn’t know existed at all.
Here’s what I know of ghosts: most of them don’t know they’ve moved on. Like a television set that’s been shut off recently, there’s a faint glow left over once it’s turned off.
It’s a light that lingers for a time, but it fades.
From the road that winds around the base of the hill and upwards into the thicket surrounding the Thornewood, you can see the widow’s walk rising above the tree line. Its black gable points heavenward though the hotel’s contemplation and somber exterior recall more earthly preoccupations; the living that pass through its halls, and the dead who linger still.
I’m under the stretch of shadow that falls from the trees surrounding the Thornewood when I see it for the first time: it’s hardly more than a shine; an orb of light that rustles the heavy drapes on the fourth floor. There a moment, and receding to darkness, leaving the windowpanes to reflect the last of the autumn leaves hanging on to those black branches.
Not so unlike a television set powering off — that light.
I’m raking up the leaves in the yard. Such a mundane thing to be doing, the first time you see a ghost.
Sure, that’s part of Thornewood’s charm: the old place is haunted, don’t you know? Something about how the light slants through her hallways that makes a fella think on his grave a little too long; a transient quality that shifts in subtle patterns that appear and vanish as fast as they come. ‘Course it might be my old eyes playing tricks.
If there are ghosts at the Thornewood Hotel, I like to think that they came for a time and fell enchanted with the old girl just like I did. The converted Georgian does have a way about her with all that wood panel and brass. Comfortable beds, some rooms still with working fireplaces, moldings and chandeliers golden and glittering, the fittings from the 1800’s when she was built. Sure, we have modern plumbing, and the electric works just fine, but even down from the drive you can see how she glows on a gray autumn day like she was lit from the inside with candles, all those trees turning to fire when the setting October sun touches their leaves.
It’s haunting alright.
Especially with the twilight coming.
Here’s what I know of spirits: most of them don’t need the reminder that their time’s past. It’s an inconvenience for the folks trying to get rid of them, and a hassle for any soul that’s gotten stuck on a place.
Best not to interfere with their business. I suspect that most of them, if they don’t know they’re already dead, don’t want to be bothered with the finding out that they are, if you follow me.
I don’t think much on the light in the window as I collect my rake and head around the property to the shed in the back. I don’t think of investigating. Those stories are just a draw for the tourists. Surely, in all the years I’ve cared for her, I’d have seen more than a flicker at a window: a pale face with dark eyes there one moment and gone when I looked back.
Where my kin came from, back in Boston, we had a name for that sort of thing — those lights: Spook lights. Hobby lanterns. Corpse candles — like the fire leftover from the soul never wanted to be snuffed out.
If Thornewood’s haunted, the ghosts don’t bother me none, and I sure don’t bother them, but there sure are enough stories about her:
She was used as a military hospital after the war, and guests like to complain of “cold spots” on the second floor where they converted the library to a temporary sick ward. There was an actress who took too many sleeping pills one night with a bottle of champagne and never woke up, and a boy who drowned in the claw-footed tub on the fourth floor when his ma locked herself out in the hall. They like to mention the fire in the south ballroom that started from a forgotten cigarette, and the businessman who hung himself from his ceiling fan when the stock market crashed in the 20s.
The hospitality staff likes to tell the guests when they ask about the portraits in the foyer that the paintings like to watch as they pass. The dapper-looking gent over the fireplace in the parlor is particularly keen, too: Lord Ashcroft came over from England, winning the land where the Thornewood stands over a hand of poker that ended with a pistol fight and a hunk of lead in his gut. They never got the bullet out, so while Lord Ashcroft caught lead poisoning, his son Walter got the land. Figures he’d be a bit put out that he died while so many others have been able to enjoy the old estate — the duck pond, the greenhouses and the garden, and the trail that leads to the North Wood where the caretaker’s shed is, and the little, hidden cemetery belonging to the grounds.
Never saw fit to disinter it; there’s a lot of history buried here for the two hundred years Thornewood’s been around, and it’s all grown over anyhow. You can hardly see the grave markers under all the moss and ivy. No one goes back there save a few deer that come from the wood.
I don’t bother neither; no sense in disturbing the dead, marching over their graves. Keep myself busy in other ways, being devoted to old Thornewood as I am. I’ve been here so long that the staff doesn’t even tell me what needs fixing. I just know when a pipe springs a leak or a bedspring pops. Call it second-nature, but I can feel it.
I’ve cared for the Thornewood since I was barely sixteen and apprenticing to old Winslow whose occupation I took over once he passed.
Been here long enough and heard the tour groups often enough when they’re showing off this room or that, or when a writer or a researcher comes by to request a specific lodging — you know the ones: the rooms where the radio clicks on by itself when you’re in the shower, or a light fixture goes dark, leaving you in the black while you’re trying to read. Mind starts playing tricks on you, then; start seeing shadows where there aren’t any. I seen ‘em. I also know that in the north wing there’s a block of rooms with electrical wiring from the 30s that act up when there’s a thunderstorm. Anything on that circuit is bound to behave strangely enough.
Sometimes a faucet will turn on by accident because the pressure in a pipe built up, or a radio will click on because it’s too old to fix, and too antique to throw out.
She’s old, Thornewood, but I know her damn good.
Winslow taught me the ropes, and Winslow was nearly eighty by the time I came on to learn the trade. He couldn’t climb the ladders anymore to wash the windows. They were rickety old things, made of wood that gave you splinters if your calluses weren’t thick enough to hold their rungs. I came fresh from secondary school and never worked a day in my life, so you can imagine what that first spring was like for my hands. I fell once, from three floors up, while cleaning one of the windows. Big old stake good enough to skewer a vampire lodged into my palm. Hurt more than the fall.
Dusted myself off like it was nothing and went straight back to work before Winslow decided I wasn’t worth the lawsuit. Was like a rite of passage: had to prove myself to the old girl before I earned the key to all her rooms.
Key to Thornewood’s heart, more like. A key so important it had a name of its own: Winslow called it The Skeleton. Capital “The”, capital “Skuh.”
I feel her weight in my pocket, and I give it a pat.
That key was given to me by Winslow back when I started in the 50s — an antique — used to open all doors, like it was a rite of passage that I’d earned her trust. I’ve kept it on my belt ever since, even though they’ve switched to newfangled electronics in the main house. Swipe cards or some such, though they never got rid of the fixtures.
Thornewood’s doors are just as thin as they were at the turn of the century, but once in a while you’ll hear about a doorknob rattling from the outside, and when someone gets brave enough to pop their head into the hall, they find that there’s no one out there.
I tug the chain that loops into the old Georgian skeleton in my pocket; a welcome weight that I pull out as I set my rake against the shed. It fits the lock here too, and I notch it in, thinking I ought to oil the hinges on the door. It sticks. Won’t turn worth a lick.
The sun’s set behind the trees and the woods around me are touched with the blue shades of evening that deepen to black. Shadows creep in from the forest, climbing over the shrubs and greenery that turn skeletal the closer winter comes. I’ll move up to the main house soon when the cold gets into my bones, but for now, the deepening night blankets the small path that runs into bracken covering the cemetery. All is quiet, save the rustle of branches overhead.
I like it out here. It’s not so lonely once you get used to it.
Shame that the old key is giving me trouble tonight, though.
I set my rake against the side of the shed and give the skeleton a wiggle, trying to get it the lock to turn.
Being attached as it is to the chain that keeps it tied to my belt loop, I can’t twist it the way it needs. I retract it, squinting at the teeth. I rub a thumb over it to get off anything that might be sticking — butter toffee or a bit of pocket lint — and try again.
Soon enough it’ll get to be so dark that I’ll have to go all the way back to the Thornewood to get a torch. My knees don’t like the idea of the walk back up the hill so much.
Frowning, I take it out again and untangle the mess of chain that’s wrapping it. Removing the key from the chain entirely, I tuck the strand of metal into my pocket. Bending down takes an effort my back doesn’t care for, but the keyhole seems clear. It’s so dark inside I can’t hardly tell if there’s something jamming the lock.
Something shifts all of a sudden, and I can see straight into the shed. Straight through the lock, like someone’d stood right in front of it just a moment before.
Leaning on the side of the shed, I stand just enough to readjust myself. There’s no explanation for my heart to drum in my throat. Old body’s getting to be a problem, and I think of Winslow at eighty-four, when he used to complain of similar problems: Seeing things. Hearing them too.
First the body goes, and then the mind.
It was probably a trick of the light.
I bend down to check again, but nothing’s changed save that I can feel the blood rushing to my head from bending over.
I ease the key in, and —
It drops with a clatter.
I frown at it a moment, lying there on the shed’s porch, debating the difficulties of my aging body and the three feet it’s gonna take to retrieve the key.
It wasn’t always like this, you know.
Winslow brought me on to show me how to look after the old girl. Taught me what Thornewood liked: Vinegar for the windows and Murphy’s Oil for the floors. Baking soda to lift the stains from the rugs that ran the hallways. Orange oil polish for the lamps. Borax for the wash with a little bluing liquid to get the sheets white and crisp, though I don’t handle anyone’s laundry but my own anymore. All of these things I keep in the shed, tucked under my cot and arranged with the labels facing outward on the shelves. It ain’t much, but it’s as home to me as Thornewood herself.
It’s a peculiar sort of love I have for her that’s grown over the years. When everyone departs at the end of the high season, I’m the one who stays on as the leaves go from green to gold, then red, and the guests who come to stay over the summer months go back to wherever they’re from.
But I stay on. I look after her, even when the halls are mostly empty for the winter and her gables take on enough snow to make the roof leak. I patch her up. I set her right.
I’m looking at that old key like it’s a talisman, but really there ain’t any magic in it: I’m about to rearrange myself to collect it, taking a step forward in the dark, but that’s a mistake: I kick the confounded thing under the door with the toe of my boot.
If Winslow could see me now: eyes shut, one hand trembling against the siding, hunched up like my whole body was asking why I wasn’t as young and spry as I used to be, he’d probably die from laughter.
A rustle in the brush to my left sounds an awful lot like it.
There’s no one out here but me, of course, though it seems for a moment that something winks to life in the darkness just over the path.
It’s there and gone in a blink, much like the orb in the fourth-floor window. All that I can see, even if I strain, is the movement of bushes, though I swear under that hushed conference of leaves I can hear someone’s muffled chortling.
I’m going to have to bend down to get the key.
I know it. My knees know it. My back knows it.
My mind knows that if I do, I might not be able to get back up again, and given the fact that the staff ignores me more times than not, I’ll probably be left out here to freeze under the first snowfall.
I’m about to make the effort too, halfway down to taking a knee like a footballer, when something — someone — shuttles the key back out from under the door.
It stops against my boot: parked there, like it’s got a mind of its own and it’s waiting for me to collect it before it can sneak away again.
I peek into the keyhole again because I can’t help myself.
Don’t even hesitate: I stick my eye up against it and search the shadowy lumps of garden tools and snow shovels. Shapes form out of the darkness — mounds that look like reaching fingers, a shrouded head — but nothing moves.
I want to ask who’s playing tricks, but the sound catches against my teeth and I bite down on the words before I can sound a fool.
I pick up the key, ignoring the creak in my spine and the tense muscles that make movement hard, and I slide it into the lock this time without a fuss. Some things go easier if you don’t stop to think them over.
I’m not thinking about Thornewood’s ghosts.
I’m not thinking about what’s waiting for me inside my shed. If anything, that spook’s been a real help.
“Thanks,” I say to no one.
The door opens to darkness, as I expected, and I don’t mind the black. It smells like fertilizer and mulch, but I keep it tidy. I’ve overheard stories about my shed too — a clatter and a racket in the night as if someone was rummaging around through the garden tools. It only happened once that I found the collection of my things rearranged, but I set it right in the cold light of day and haven’t seen a disturbance since.
If there are ghosts here, they know that the caretaker’s shed is mine.
Nothing tonight is out of place, but there’s an unsettled energy that twines about my ankles like the after-impression of a cat re-familiarizing itself with my presence.
I light a wick in the lantern I keep by my bedside and turn the knob to dispel any lingering haints in the corners. There’s nothing and no one here save me.
My heart gives a pulse and a twang anyway, and I place the key on the bedside table as if to keep a weather eye on it should it move, or fall, or shuffle into the dark space between the bed and the desk of its own accord, or if something should move it with invisible hands. There’s something about the thought I find unsettling: some bit of shadow lurking in the back of the mind that recalls, as a child, wanting to shut the closet door completely; that wants to draw the limbs fully under the covers once the lights are turned off.
I settle onto my cot to shake off my work boots and to rest my mind as much as my body. It’s cold enough out here to see my breath, but with the door closed and the oil lantern lit, the warmth will seep into my bones soon enough. I don’t think my trembling fingers are from the cold, but I push the thought away. I focus on the lamplight as it throws shadows up the wall instead. They don’t make lamps like they used to. This too was Winslow’s, and it’s a relic from a bygone era that could heat a room enough to make you sweat when it gets going.
My pa had one just like it before he died and I took this job. No other way to support myself with both my folks having moved on. They’re buried out in Boston at Granary. Seems like it was an eon ago since I seen them last, and that’s a thought I linger on as I look up to the only tiny, black window in the shed.
I jolt, gripping the edge of the cot, and the sudden motion sears through my neck, my shoulders, and emerges as the throb of a fractured headache. Old bones. The muscles in my back are still searing as I clutch my knees to take a firmer grip on reality. The bones under my hands are knobbed and angular under the skin. It shifts under my hands, but its real. I’m real.
That face in the window — just my reflection mottled by the dirt so that the features look hollowed out. Scooped out eyes are only splotches of rain-washed earth dried and clinging in the hollows where my cheeks are. My heart gives a rare, too-large skip that might be the murmur fussing.
I begin laughing, until I realize that my reflection isn’t laughing with me.
Here’s what I know of ghosts: they don’t bother me, and I won’t bother them.
I’ve grabbed the lantern, the skeleton key in my fist, the old ticker knocking into my ribs, and I’m out the door and around the side of the shed before it can say, “Boo.”
I heard this story a time ago about the cemetery out at the back of the property, buried under all that creeper. One of the kids working the bellhop desk was trying to impress his sweetheart with a little bravado.
The kid said he used to see lights out here in the wood; wisps that rose right out of the path, lighting the forest with an eerie, phosphor blue out back by the caretaker’s shed.
That’s how he found the cemetery. Those spook lights led him right to those overgrown slabs of cracked marble; gravestones so old the names were washed clear away with erosion.
Lord Ashcroft’s buried out here some place with his kin, but there are others of course; those that tended to the Thornewood who would have been interred as indigents elsewhere. Folks who loved her, or who couldn’t leave for some reason or another.
That actress, for one, the young boy who drowned in the bathtub, another; remains that go unclaimed.
I told you, I’ve taken care of the old girl for a long time, and of course, I meant by that that I cared for her guests as well, especially those that settled in for a longer stay than most.
I’m thinking of the boy in particular as that spiraling, roiling blue light hovers beneath the leaves and rises above the path, urging me to follow.
I recall his mother in particular as I follow the light down the path, brushing aside the underbrush as it vanishes and reappears several feet away. I follow it, figuring I won’t get a wink of rest tonight if I don’t.
Such a sad woman to find herself in such a state. Heard she died years later in a sanitarium not so far away from the Thornewood — out at a nice, quiet place in the valley. Some folks couldn’t handle the rigors of the treatment back then, and she was already so frail from losing her boy.
Can’t fault anyone for letting go, though I don’t rightly understand it myself: if it were me, I’d never want to leave her; the Thornewood’s the only home I’ve ever known.
I pause on the path, my ankle knocking a toppled slab as the corpse candle wends its ways into the thicker parts of the underbrush. There are stones out here, I know, but it’s obvious that it wants to show me something out in the deepest part of the forest. To my left, a collection of larger, better-kept monuments belonging to the family rise statuesque in the moonlight: white, hazy shapes that leave spectral impressions watching me from the dark.
I go the other way, into the black, wading deeper into foliage and catching roots. When the glow vanishes, sinking beneath the brush and tangle of creeper, I’m hardly surprised. We’ve reached its intended destination.
They’ve got other names for those lights where I come from: will o’ the wisp, spook light, corpse candle; named because they’re forever so close to the bodies that they came from.
It hurts when I kneel down, feeling my way with one hand, the other holding the lantern aloft to see what I’m doing as I pull back the tangle that covers the stone. Something twinges in my chest, like a piece of some old history has slid out of place: two vertebrae sliding back into place. It hurts, and then there’s relief I didn’t know I was missing.
The year is hardly visible, but I know it well: 1853, three years into my apprenticeship with old Winslow learning how to care for the Thornewood; the same year I fell from the ladder from three stories up.
The hotel never wanted a lawsuit, and I know now why I never gave them one: I can barely read my own name, carved hastily into the marble so the engraving’s mostly worn down and forgotten, much like the memory of me in this place.
Explains why the staff never say thanks when I mop the front hall.
My hands, pale and a little translucent in the lamplight, remember the feeling of wood splinter embedded into my skin from the ladder. They tremble a little, but not so much anymore, knowing that I never have to leave if I don’t want to.
Here’s what I know of ghosts: most of them don’t know they’ve moved on.