Welcome to day thirty-one of the Haunted Hotel Writer and Illustrator showcase!
Come back each day, the entire month of October for a scare! Today’s story is here thanks to a master key, given out and forgotten about…until now.
“There’s no such thing as ghosts, only the emptiness left behind. Everyone leaves. Like this place,” the old man said, straining his thin neck as he craned his head to take in the bustling lobby and bar, the giddy line of people at the front desk. “If not for me, this hotel would be empty, the absence of life the only thing to fill it. No, son. The only thing haunted here is me.”
The kid leaned back from the hotel bar where he shouldn’t have been to begin with. The old man, this skeleton with skin, went back to wiping the bartop with a stringy towel, his naked smile covered again with slivers of lips. Finally, the kid let out his breath.
Thornewood Hotel was anything but empty. The huge lobby hosted bellhops waiting at the elevators, more than one raucous party of college-age kids staying overnight on a dare, elegant couples lounged across red velvet sofas, lost in the subtle darkness of the place. The upper floors were exposed, baring dozens of people through the iron railings heading to their rooms, or to someone else’s.
All these people were here because of the rumors, that macabre longing to be part of a ghost story.
It was a shitty tourist trap.
“So no ghosts then?” the kid, Brendan, huffed. “All this is crap. This place wasn’t even built until the 1800s it says in that big book over there,” he said, pointing at a coffee table book at the feet of a kissing couple dressed in black. “The Salem Witch Trials were long before that.” And Brendan would know because he just read about them in high school. He put his beer, untouched, down on the bar.
The old man laughed, glassy eyes still on the swirls his hand made with the bar towel. “Boy, Thornewood is like every other hotel; any hint of humanity is washed out with the sticky sheets the next day. My guests get what they want, they go, and I’m still here.”
“So you’re the ghost, right? That’s how this works? Somebody will tell me there isn’t even a bar at the Thornewood, much less one that would serve a high school kid, and we’ll all get chills?”
That bony grin came back. “No, boy, you’ll leave here in the morning like everybody else, with just a story of a creepy old man to tell.” He leaned forward, and Brendan was sure he could hear the man’s bones creak. “That’s the way I get them to keep coming here. I rattle their cages,” he said, tapping his head, “scare ‘em up. Some swear they leave Thornewood feeling different, that once they’re alone in their rooms, something changes.” He laughed, a dry laugh that blended in with all the other laughter around them. “Guess you’ll have to stay yourself to find out.”
“Hey,” Brendan’s girlfriend, Marybeth said breathlessly, coming up behind him. “This place is gorgeous! Everywhere I went there was all this red velvet and gold and black–”
“Like a brothel?” Brendan chided, leaning back against her.
“No, like a pretty hotel from like, the fifties or something.”
Brendan turned around on his bar stool and pulled Marybeth against him, her dark hair tickling his face. “I say we treat it like a brothel,” he said, kissing her neck through a leer.
“Now, now, you two,” the old man said gently, coming around the bar and tossing the towel over his shoulder. “Let me show you to your room.”
Marybeth made a face. “Why are you showing us to our room? There are bellhops,” she said, glancing at one of the young men in his tiny hat at the elevator. “Aren’t you the bartender?” A disheveled patron put his empty glass on the bar, nodded at the old man when they made eye contact, and muttered that Steven makes better drinks anyway, to take as long as he needed. The old man patted him on the shoulder as he passed.
“Evening, Charlie,” the handsome bellhop said, nodding at the old man as the three entered the elevator, joining a handful of others.
“Mitch, looking good tonight, you ladykiller.”
“So everyone else can see him, too, right?” Marybeth whispered into Brendan’s ear, strawberry breath lingering.
“Maybe they’re all ghosts,” Brendan said.
“Or maybe we are.”
“Can ghosts do this?” The boy pinched her bottom so hard she leaped, bumping into the woman behind her, who tottered on her heels.
“Sorry,” Marybeth said sweetly, tucking her hair behind her ear.
The woman righted herself, smiling back. “You look so familiar, dear. Are you from around here?”
“I am,” Marybeth said, still smiling. She was like that, smiled at strangers. It made Brendan smile all the time.
The woman took a step forward when the elevator dinged. “So am I,” she said with a sultry wink that neither of the kids understood. She sashayed out of the elevator, alone.
“Total ghost,” Brendan said. Marybeth giggled.
Charlie said not a word as he left the elevator on the next floor, only waved the two kids along behind him. Marybeth trailed her fingers along the wall, smiling still.
“Is this silk?” she asked Charlie about the shining gold wallpaper. Paintings dotted the hallway between rooms. The frames were all different, like they’d been picked up at yard sales, and Brendan suspected they had been. All to lend to the atmosphere of this oddball, beautiful place where things went together, but didn’t and nothing/everything was cohesive. A little contrived.
“That wallpaper was here long before I was, so I suspect so,” said Charlie.
“And the paintings?”Brendan asked.
“Oh, they come and go,” Charlie replied, and stopped in front of a door.
Marybeth glanced at me with a mocking wrinkled brow, and I shrugged.
The room was lovely. Opulent, even. Faint pink wallpaper, silk, like in the hallway. Furniture all painted white. Elaborately carved wood. All the accents shined like the inside of seashells. A small crystal chandelier hung over the bed, which was covered in a maroon satin.
“Oh wow,” Marybeth said, eyes wide. She strode past Brendan and Charlie, mouth open but smiling. “This is unbelievable.” She sat lightly on the queen bed, and Brendan’s heart skipped a beat.
Shaking it off for the time being, Brendan went to the enormous window and pulled the heavy maroon curtains aside. It looked out over the woods, where lanterns glowed like giant fireflies in the closest trees.
The only living trees.
A bony forest illuminated beyond, stretching further than something dead should have reached. No yellow eyes peered between the cadaverous trees, autumn leaves didn’t blow across the brittle ground. The woods were an emaciated shadow of the hotel, staring through its windows, waiting for scraps.
Brendan backed away.
Charlie closed the curtains again with a sharp look at the boy. “Nothing but emptiness back there, son. More emptiness.” He approached Brendan fast, faster than the kids had seen him move yet. “If you need something empty, boy, you’ve come to the right place,” he snarled, then smiled nastily. “Maybe you’ll be the one who stays this time. Maybe emptiness suits you. Maybe that beating heart is too much to bear at times, it scares you, the memories building in your mind, the hopes that spill out, naked and afraid—“
The old man’s gnarled hands were twisting in the air between their faces in his fanatical speech, his eyes bulging, spittle shooting between his yellowed teeth. Brendan whimpered.
“Maybe you’ll find comfort in the dark, boy,” Charlie said hoarsely. A tear trickled down Brendan’s cheek. Charlie clapped him on the shoulder. “Good night, now, kids,” he said warmly, as though he hadn’t just terrified them both to shaking.
Marybeth was frozen to the bed, fingers curled into claws around the covers. But it wasn’t Charlie or Brendan she was afraid of. It was the painting that appeared on the wall in front of her, one that hadn’t been there a moment before.
It was a painting of her. Burning.
“See you in the morning,” Charlie said as the door closed behind him. Brendan and Marybeth both ran toward the door, but neither of them touched the knob—if it could be called that. A deep red porcelain anatomical heart, it turned quickly sticky-looking and pulsing, dripping blood on the floor. A wet squelching sound came from the other side of the door, and the heart twitched, contracting around something inserted inside it.
With a click, the kids were locked inside.
Marybeth swung around, breath short. “Brendan,” she whispered. “What can we do?”
Brendan stifled his own nerves, squinted his eyes to abolish the squirming feelings of bugs skittering across his body that this place had inflicted upon him. “We’re falling for it. This is all a trick, there’s nothing to worry about.”
“I worry about that, Brandon!” she screeched, pointing at the painting.
Brandon crossed the room, despite Marybeth holding her hand out to him, silently begging for him to stay beside her. He touched the painting, and yanked his fingers back, sticking them in his mouth.
“It’s hot,” he said. “Nice touch.”
“That’s me in that painting!”
Brandon couldn’t deny that it was her. Her dark hair, same length; he could make out the cowlick over her right eye where the flames stopped. He could see the mole by her eyebrow, and he would know those eyes anywhere. They seemed so—
The girl in the painting twitched, grimaced. Screamed. A long howl, mournful of her own horrible death, and the moan echoed in the dead woods outside, a single wind rattling the lanterns.
“Save me, Brandon,” the Marybeth in the painting choked out.
The real Marybeth screamed, snapping Brandon back to the present, out of the living witch burning on canvas.
Marybeth had dared to put her hand on the doorknob.
She held up her hand, entire body trembling, index finger blistering and red. With a shaking breath, eyes streaming tears, she looked at her boyfriend. “It took my finger inside, I felt it take something from inside me…”
The blistering spread up Marybeth’s arm. It swerved up her neck, and when it reached her hair, it ignited, flames racing down her arm like a match set to gasoline. Brandon fell to the floor, which had begun to smoke, and the room was ablaze, starting with the painting of the dying witch that was Marybeth somehow.
“Help!” Brandon cried. “Please, help us!”
“Help!” the witch in the painting mocked, and she laughed as she burned.
A hideous scraping overpowered the screams and cries, turning Brandon’s stomach. For as certainly as the disembodied heart had taken part of Marybeth, this scraping was something coming for Brandon.
In the chaotic noise and terror of the burning room, of Marybeth being torn away from him, Brandon’s head turned slower than time, his eyes finally resting on the window, where the scraping became more frantic, as if sensing his gaze. Brandon crawled on hands and knees to the window and without the hesitation of someone with hope, he pulled the crimson curtains aside.
The bone white trees howled with the agony of lost and soulless things as they burst through the glass and ripped Brandon through it, dragging him into the lifeless woods, his world burning behind him.
* * * * *
The stories of ghosts were nothing compared to the real horror that boiled and blistered with fury and sadness in a room without walls or doors in the Thornewood. It was a place that existed, pulsing with a dead energy, an energy stolen and harbored inside this empty prison.
A power that didn’t require spooky stories to keep it alive. A power that thrived on more than words and pounding hearts.
Charlie kept an even pace through the halls of the Thornewood Hotel. He no longer shook when he took this walk, or pursed his lips to prevent vomiting. He passed the ever-shifting paintings, that always called to him, witches crying for the help of a man they never knew. He ambled through the lobby, paying no notice to the increasingly excitable crowd; they didn’t know what they’d felt, but they’d all felt something. A stealing of something, a vague sense of loss and a swelling in the hotel. A growth. Heat and iciness at once. And most certainly screams. Charlie’s eyes lingered on the coffee table book, now claiming the Thornewood Hotel was built during Prohibition.
The truth was that the Thornewood knew no time. The Thornewood owed no greater entity aside from the power in the doorless, windowless room.
“I’ve come,” Charlie said when he’d wandered the halls long enough to be lost in this place of his own, when he felt no more than a confused old man. Mariah loved this part. The best servants felt they were all-powerful, right up until those moments they came face to face with their master.
Charlie had been heady with the power Mariah allowed him. Charlie never died, never became one with the roots and dry dirt of those brittle, abandoned woods; a gift that seemed bountiful with promise for a man who was forever searching. A search for someone to just stay, and one that always came up empty.
And coming back to Mariah.
She made him wait sometimes. This time she was the one who couldn’t wait.
Charlie couldn’t ever hold back the scream when his index finger elongated, old bones cracking, stretching in a way nothing solid should. He couldn’t stop the tears when the skin split and restitched, forging a shockingly gruesome key of shredded meat, strained tendons, exposed bone. Every time he felt it stretching his soul, drawing him out further than he should go.
Charlie knew all about that. He’d lived too long; no, not lived.
A dead, dark heart, dripping no blood, pulsing weakly, materialized in front of the old man, level with his own heart. Charlie gagged as he inserted his finger into the rotted flesh of it, the ashy decay of the barely living thing. The muscle clamped around his finger, and sucked. Sucked until it was throbbing brightly with life, red as a blooming rose and just as fresh. The old man’s eyes twinkled.
He liked this part. Seeing her vitality restored. Seeing how she needed him. Mariah Thorne, everlasting survivor, flawless, radiant, magical immortal, needed him. An old man with nothing. Whose greatest accomplishment was staying alive and opening hotel room doors.
Then she was there.
Mariah Thorne flickered into vision, the form rendered around the beating heart. The burns came first. She’d told Charlie they were her most powerful memory—not her thirty years of life, her daughter, strong and kind, the peace she felt writing pages of words no one would ever read, not the magic that danced on her fingers and in her heart at will. It wasn’t the fury of her neighbors when they saw her slaughter a hen and pour its blood over her garden in the night, or when the vegetables sprouted to life by morning. Her strongest memory was the feeling of the flames scorching her toes first, licking up her legs and arms, and what happened next.
When she realized she had the strength to turn the flames on those traitorous imbeciles that dared to try to kill her. With one flick of her hand, straining against the ropes on her wrist, she incinerated those fools and laughed as she fell to the pyre. The ropes burned away, her flesh burned away, and she cast her smoke-stung eyes to the woods.
Blackened flesh fell from her body as she crawled to them, the fruitful, lush woods.
She would be lush and fruitful forever.
“Mariah,” Charlie breathed.
The witch’s dark hair swam like sea serpents around her head. Her smile was sunlight when she said to Charlie, “I saw her through the eyes of the woods. This…Marybeth. She looks just like my little girl, before they—“ Mariah’s eyes hardened, and her heart coiled tighter around the old man’s finger. “She feeds me like none other. Her soul—I felt it the moment she set foot in the Thornewood.” Mariah’s burns smoothed out, tender skin replacing it, soft around Charlie’s finger as her heart loosened its grip. “Her soul isn’t sedentary like the others. It grows, gives and takes, diminishes and is reborn, every day.”
She released Charlie, who stumbled back in amazement. “Your radiance is too much for my eyes, Mariah. This girl has nourished you beyond anything I’ve seen.”
“And you brought her to me,” the witch said.
Charlie was blindsided by a longing and a fear like nothing he’d ever known.
“Perhaps, Mariah… Perhaps my reward might change in this instance.”
The beautiful witch bared her teeth, eyes aflame, though her voice was gentle. “Our agreement was eternal, Charlie. Is a bit of this impeccable soul you’ve brought me not payment enough? Am I not generous with you, do I not do well by you, that you must ask me for more than immortality?”
“No! No, Mariah, not more. Only…different. Marybeth’s soul flourishes so wildly in you, I can’t help but wonder—“
“—about the woods,” Mariah finished.
Before the hotel, Mariah took her life from the surrounding woods. The creatures that inhabited it, the towering trees, the worms in the soil, the flowers that sprang up in the morning. Every inch of the woods had soul, and while Mariah helped it to grow with her magic, the woods gave back to her. The woods nursed her to health, rejuvenated her until she’d bled it dry in her greed, sucked its marrow, consumed its skin. Until the woods were no longer enough and she needed the souls to flow like a river, constant, teeming with life. She needed a place of her own. She needed a servant to deliver these souls to her forever. And Thornewood Hotel was born of her sheer will.
“The woods have taken a boy this night,” Charlie continued, hope growing in him. Hope that Mariah might let him free of the gift she’d bestowed upon him.
“Not the woods. Me. I have taken him.”
“Yes! You have done it, through the lifelines that still connect you to those trees! Your magic keeps the woods alive, despite the death that fills them now! You can restore it, if you just let yourself, Mariah. If you don’t abandon them any longer, if you go back there.” Charlie dared to put a hand on her arm, as a friend would. “Mariah, you can be the witch of the woods you once were, not chained to this hotel with need.”
Mariah’s eyes became faraway. “I am stronger than need,” she murmured.
Charlie leaned in closer, squeezing her arm, the thrill of being allowed to comfort her filling him with more life than he’d experienced in these countless years. “You are pure magic, Mariah Thorne, and owe it to yourself to live.”
Her eyes met his, and filled with fire.
The air shimmered around them with heat.
Mariah screamed, centuries of anguish released into a blaze of energy, aching to burn the hotel to the ground. Charlie held her tightly still, now with both hands, ready to burn with her.
* * * * *
Mariah’s screams were heard for days after the Thornewood Hotel was nothing but smoking cinders. Her wails were louder than those of the hundreds trapped inside—the last guests the Thornewood would ever know.
Mariah incinerated the Thornewood and everyone in it as she ran to the woods, pulling Charlie behind. It’s said that the trail of night blooming flowers leading from the hotel’s carcass to the woods are born of Charlie’s tears as they fell to the ground, though of happiness or despair, no one could know.
When the hotel was no more than a black mark, the woods burst to life. The pained branches fattened and grew luscious leaves to canopy the dense moss and fauna they held close. The life they’d given Mariah, that she so crudely took, never left. It haunted those woods, waiting. And like any carnivorous thing, it took the offering given to it; Charlie and Mariah disappeared into its depths.
The woods thrived year round, through the cold and snow, leaves always a vibrant green. They deserved that magic returned to them. And they weren’t about to let it go again.
Deep in the woods, was a nest of thorns. It cradled a human heart, that it only squeezed too hard sometimes, in the dead of winter, and that heart bled and pulsed and fed the woods that had ripped its owner through a window the night the Thornewood burnt down. And that boy’s heart had found someone who would never leave.
She walked those woods with more grace than she’d walked the halls of Thornewood Hotel, a soul as bright as summer sun, and when she slept beside that nest of thorns at night, the heart and the trees whispered her name.
About the Author
Julie Hutchings is a pizza hoarding, coffee swilling, karate loving author and editor with a magnetism for the creepy and obscure. It shows in the twisted mythologies of her urban fantasy and paranormal works. She’s the author of Running Home, Running Away, and The Harpy, forthcoming from REUTS Publications.
Owns a family, Small Mexican Dog and a lizard.