Read part one of the story here.
Read part two of the story here.
I didn’t trust Brett with the gun, but even with an injured arm popped out of the socket, I knew his Krav Maga training would kick my ass. I needed to trust him. We needed to stick together. We needed to find the ballroom.
When I told him that, he said, “Jesus, we went over this. We’re looking for Beth first. If you don’t like it, then you don’t have to keep following me around like a damn duckling.”
“I think that’s where we’re going to find her, though. I bet there’s a painting of her hanging up now. Just like the friend I came here with, Lizzie.”
No response. No sense in repeating myself.
So we followed the maze of hallways, walking past doors and paintings and more doors and more paintings. When we finally reached the area where the double doors to the ballroom used to sit, we found nothing except a blank spot on the wall. Empty space without a bulge of a doorknob.
Brett stored his gun in the back of his jeans and shoved against the wall, trying to push out a nonexistent panel. When that plan failed, he kicked. Slammed. Cursed.
“This is definitely the place,” he said, pacing. “It was right fucking here.”
I chewed on the inside of my cheek. Thinking. “Maybe we should look for the stairwell,” I said.
“You told me Beth was in here.”
“I think the staircase will reset things. Like in a video game. My brother played that zombie one all the time. You know when you leave the room and come back and all the enemies are spawned in again? I think that’s how this works.”
“First off, you’re institutional level crazy. And even if you guessed right, why the hell would we want to see that thing?”
“Because the paintings belong to it. It guards them.”
That shut him up. We found the stairs and descended in silence. One flight, then two, then three and four and five. When we reached the bottom, I sat on the final step and dangled my legs into the darkness.
A part of me wanted to jump. I had never considered myself suicidal, but I had stopped checking both ways before crossing the street. I had pressed down on my razor a little harder while shaving lately. I had let Lizzie take us to this seedy hotel after a night of drinking when my gut warned against it. I had stopped caring about anything, everything, after my engagement got called off, after my home went into foreclosure.
I stayed there for a few seconds (or minutes? did time exist here?), until Brett placed a hand on my shoulder. For a moment, I worried he was going to push me, let me tumble into the abyss because I didn’t have the courage to do it myself, but he helped me up instead.
“Come on. I don’t need you falling down there,” he said. “Already got enough to raise my blood pressure.”
We tromped back up the stairs (only three flights this time) to appear in a different but identical hallway.
We walked and walked and walked until I found a set of double doors. The ballroom. Bingo.
Brett pushed through with his good shoulder, gun raised high in the air like a flashlight. He assumed the stance of an action star, like he actually knew what he was doing. Meanwhile, I’d never held a weapon before, let alone shot one. Maybe it was good I’d let Brett keep it.
The woman in black appeared in the corner of the room, just like last time. I wondered if Beth had been right when she explained her hotel theory. I wondered if the entire hotel had a pattern to it. If every movement could be predicted. The woman. The staircase. Everything.
But I quickly wiped those questions from my mind, because I had chosen this path. Acting. Not thinking. Attack over logic. Brawns over brains.
So when the woman moved toward us, slow lunges that shook her tree limb body, Brett raised the gun.
We needed to circle around her to reach the paintings. She blocked the way, but over her shoulders, I could see Lizzie’s blue tipped bangs and gaping mouth. Beth’s single brown braid and half-lidded eyes. Their paintings were flanked by faces of strangers – girls with flushed cheeks and boys with furrowed brows. How long had this goddamn hotel been around? Months? Decades?
I needed to crack the frames into pieces, release their bodies, save their souls. I kept my hopes high, kept telling myself they would all be okay, even though pinpricks of doubt nibbled at my mind. Did getting inserted into the painting kill them? Would they pop out of the frames as corpses? Would they pop out at all?
The woman in black lunged again, her arms reaching out now, the blood from her ripped raw fingertips leaving red teardrops across the carpet. Brett aimed for her chest and pulled the trigger. The bullet made contact, but instead of tearing through her flesh and opening a gap, it pinged against her body and clattered against the floor.
The logical part of my brain told me she had strapped a bulletproof vest to her chest. But when Brett shot again, a little higher this time, hitting her shoulder, the bullet bounced again. Maybe she had an armor plate across her entire torso? He aimed even higher. This time, the bullet smashed against her head and bounced off. No mark on her. No scratch. No indent.
He shot again. And again. And again. Until the gun clicked. Empty.
What the hell do we do, what the hell, what the hell? I could risk running toward the row of paintings and breaking out Lizzie, but that thing would get one of us and we’d be back at square one. I could run out the door and down the hall like last time, but she would still get me eventually. She only went away during our last altercation because she had reached Beth. She wouldn’t stop until she found a new trophy to display.
No, running wasn’t an option. We needed to fight back.
My eyes scanned the wall of paintings. The one on the far wall held faces of friends, but the watercolors in the halls might help. I might find more weapons. I might find something useful.
“Come on,” I yelled to Brett as I sped out the double doors.
He rushed closer to the creature instead. Toward Beth’s painting.
I tried to move fast, hoping to come up with a plan before the woman in black devoured him — could it even devour him, make him crumble like Beth? When it had taken her, she was unmoving, unconscious. Before that, it hadn’t touched any of us. Maybe it couldn’t touch any of us while we were able-bodied. Maybe it had limitations.
Maybe the painting of the woman in white — the painting Brett had said caused him and his sister to pass out just by looking at it — sat outside of the creature’s ballroom for a reason, for a sedative. Maybe their powers worked together. Maybe they helped each other.
I searched the hallway walls for the woman in white. When I found her, I redirected my gaze toward the ground. After only a brief glance at the short harsh lines, I felt a rush through my head. A sudden wooziness.
This creature was just as powerful as the creature chasing me. It had to be with that kind of effect.
Keeping my eyes directed at the ground, I wrestled the painting off the wall. The woman in black screamed from the other side of the double doors, momentarily stunning me. And then, with a blink, she was in front of me.
She peeled the hair back from her head like curtains with two clawed hands, revealing her nonexistent face. There were only indents across her skin where the eyes and nose and mouth would be. Like a carved pumpkin without its pieces popped all the way out.
She didn’t want me to touch the painting. I must have been right. This must have been the answer.
I took a step back from the wall so I could swing the frame hard against it with all my body weight. It took me three times, the cracks growing deeper with each impact, but it finally splintered to pieces.
The new creature slithered out. Just as tall with hair just as long. But when this one screeched, the sound was low, deep, throaty.
And this one had teeth. Not inside a mouth, but around its empty face like dots of acne. The sharp, wolf-like fangs poked out from its chin and forehead and cheeks, razor sharp.
I squeezed my fingers into fists, too scared to move, assuming I screwed up. I committed suicide. I demolished our last chances of survival.
I felt my heartbeat bungee into my throat, preparing for death, welcoming it – but instead of wasting any energy on me, the two creatures flung themselves toward each other like magnets and smashed together, creating an explosion of white light. A brightness that rivaled the sun’s. That burned my retinas.
My vision gone, I had to feel along the walls to find the double doors again, flinching every time I heard another Neanderthal screech. Separately, the sounds were bearable, but blended together, it made my ears ring. Ridding me of another of my senses.
When I reached the wall of paintings, I counted them out from the corner to the center of the room, remembering exactly where Lizzie’s sat. Thirteen paintings in. I struggled to remove it from its hooks, and then rested it against the floor, pulling the frame up with my arms and pushing down with my feet to crack it.
I couldn’t see, I couldn’t hear, but I could feel Lizzie’s presence when the wood splintered, could tell her body was slumped across he ground. I skimmed my hands across her shoulders and felt the straps of the little black dress she had on. I moved my hands to her face and felt her sweat-wet bangs. She might have been unconscious. She might have been a corpse. But she was in my hands again.
I wanted to hold her, to carry her out of the goddamn place, but first, I grabbed the painting beside the now-empty space. The painting of Beth. Brett must not have reached it in time.
I placed the painting on the ground, ready to snap the frame in half, when I felt the energy in the room shift. I felt a gust of wind blow through my hair, so strong it knocked me on my ass. Deep, in an unnamed part of my chest, the piece holding my sixth sense, I felt the battle between the two women ending.
Everything was over.
When I could see again, when I was able to blink away the dots of light, I was outside, legs dangling off the back of an ambulance. I could smell something crisp. Burnt. A mixture of wood and metal and skin. It smelt the same as when I was a kid, when my house had erupted in flames, melting my brother’s flesh to liquid.
“What’s going on?” I tried to ask, but found myself coughing instead.
“Take it easy,” the fireman beside me said. “Your friend? Lizzie? She told us about your history with burning buildings. Experiencing that kind of trauma twice can be mentally damaging. Difficult for the brain to process. We think you might have blacked out. I’m no doctor. They should be able to tell you more when they get you over to the hospital.”
My eyes darted. I could see the hotel, reduced to mounds of black and brown. I could see Lizzie talking, flirting, with a young police officer. I could see Brett wrestling with another officer who threatened to cuff him.
“My sister,” he said, trying to shove his way past the cop. “She’s still in there. I got to go in there.”
“Kid, I’m not going to tell you again, you have to stay back,” the cop said, his voice faint over the crunch of gravel. “No one else is alive. We’ll send our team in to check again, but they’ve already checked three times.”
I wanted to enclose Brett in a hug, tell him sorry, swear I almost saved her but the hourglass ran out. Then I wanted to rush over to Lizzie and bombard her with questions about what she saw, what she remembered from the last few hours. Was it my version of things?
Or did she see me lighting a match to set the building on fire, to follow in the family tradition of arson and attempted suicide, to erase all the pain of my broken engagement, of my home foreclosing, of living another damn day?
I hugged the shock blanket tighter across my chest. It didn’t matter what Lizzie said (who would lie to protect me), or Brett (who would lie to avoid getting sent to an institution like his mother), or the firemen (who weren’t there to see the truth).
It didn’t matter if their stories matched mine or not, because I could see a pile of frames poking out from the rubble. I could see my version of reality.