Before we begin:
This all started when, not too long ago, I saw a post on the Creepy Catalog Facebook page that went something to the effect of: “Calling all horror nerds and writers alike…” Since I’m fairly sure I belong to both groups, this post immediately grabbed my attention. It turned out to be a request for hotel-themed horror stories, which I assume had nothing to do with the season premier of a popular TV show. Of course, my imagination jumped right on it. As I told my editor, Michael, I’m the queen of weird shit happening to me in hotels. Unfortunately, by the time I got around to reading Michael’s reply e-mail, I’d missed the deadline by about two hours.
Still, I rarely pass up a writing prompt without saying, “Challenge accepted” (sometimes out loud, sadly), and this was no exception. I already had two of my own hotel-related experiences which, I thought, could be easily turned into stories on such short notice. It was a toss-up between The Old Country Inn, and That Time In Vegas. Obviously, a quick glance at the title will tell you which one I chose. Now, being my usual sleep-deprived, preoccupied self, it took another month for me to actually write the damn thing.
I spent most of that month agonizing over whether I should mention a certain political party which plays an integral part in this story. As you’ll soon see, any terms and names that indicate a party allegiance have been redacted. No statements in this story are meant to advocate or criticize any political party either way.
Now that I think about it, maybe I should have gone with the Vegas one. Oh well – it’s too late now.
It may or may not interest you to know that I lost my innocence in a quaint North Carolina inn on the 5th of November, (yes, Guy Fawkes Day for all you Anglophiles) in the late 2000s – and by innocence, I mean that thing I was raised to believe I shouldn’t give up until my wedding night. It also happened to be an off-year Election Night in the Old North State. My school’s chapter of College X had taken a chartered bus trip halfway across the country, just so we could put on our résumés that we’d volunteered on a major candidate’s campaign. As luck would have it, our guy won. Needless to say, that night we all got stupid drunk.
Now, what most people don’t realize about this particular Party is that, despite all our grandstanding about morals and values, they are really just a glorified frat party. The only difference is, the guys are all in suits, the girls wear pencil skirts, and everyone owns something from The North Face. At least, that’s how it’s always been in my experience. Just don’t tell them I said that.
Still, don’t think we didn’t earn our right to knock back a few drinks. We’d spent the entire week canvassing through chintzy subdivisions the size of small towns; and when we were done, we collected more data over the phone from thousands upon thousands of registered voters. Not once did we complain, not even when the campaign manager forced us to work through Halloween.
Now that I think about it, another strange thing happened that week. On Halloween we’d worked until 5 PM as usual, making campaign calls and reminding people to vote. I was on my next-to-last call. They were stored in the system, so I didn’t have to dial the number; all I did was press the call button and wait.
A lady answered, halfway through a sigh. “Hello?” She sounded upper-middle-aged.
“Yes, is this Emily?” I asked.
“Speaking,” she said, voice turning to frost.
“Hello, Emily, my name is Taryn,” I began, and launched into my practiced variation on the cue cards they issued us, reminding her to vote for our candidate and the others on the ticket.
The woman expelled a deep breath, scraping static against my ear. “No, I’m not voting for your candidate,” she said, “and do you know why?”
Her irritation didn’t catch me off guard, because I’d already dealt with hundreds of people just like her.
“And why is that, ma’am?” I asked in a pleasant tone, which probably pissed her off even more. I’m not above admitting it was mildly entertaining.
“Have you read the Master’s Thesis he wrote in college? The things he says about a woman’s role in society are pretty damn disturbing.”
In the same breezy voice, I said, “Yes, of course I read it. I thought it was phenomenal.”
The woman scoffed, shoving static my way again. “Now that’s just scary,” she said, and hung up.
I shrugged, and with the touch of a button I put her on the “Do Not Call” list. (For the record, I actually did read that thesis a few weeks later. I saw nothing wrong with it. The bitch was clearly overreacting.)
The next number on the queue showed up with no name.
Weird, I thought. Up until then, they’d all shown the name of the person being called. I assumed the data had been lost in the system somehow, but that didn’t stop me from calling the number anyway.
The line paused longer than usual before it rang, and I’d been tempted just to hang up. Instead, someone picked up on the first ring. I listened for the customary hello, straining my ears in case the reception was bad.
Nothing. No breathing, no background static. Even on calls with bad service, there’s usually something. It’s never just dead silence. Except, this time, it was.
Okay, fuck this, I thought. My finger hovered over the button, poised to condemn this number to the “Do Not Call” list for all eternity.
Then, a low, rasping voice sent the blood rushing to my legs. My heart jumped like I’d stepped on a thumb tack.
The voice belonged to a man, probably in his 50s. I doubted he smoked less than a pack of unfiltered Marlboros a day.
All he said was, “Yer ma was a whiner, too, and now she’s rotting in the ground.”
I quickly recovered from the shock. This guy had to be drunk.
“I’m sorry, Sir,” I replied with the same patronizing formality, “I didn’t quite catch that.”
There was the same airtight silence, and then the line disconnected.
I rolled my eyes, added the number to the “Do Not Call” list, and moved on to the next one.
For the next five days, I thought nothing of it. The remaining calls went as they were supposed to, with no unexplained silences or disturbing one-line statements. I started thinking one of the guys had somehow staged it just to fuck with me, but I had no way of knowing who it was. After a while, I forgot about the incident.
Then, on Election Night, we got the call. Our guy won by a wide margin, and we’d made The Party very proud. Of course, this didn’t come as a surprise to any of us. We already had liquor chilling on ice for the victory party.
You can guess what happened next. I ingested a ridiculous amount of Jack Daniels, which I always drink straight up, because I hate Coke as well as any kind of carbonated beverage. Then one of the guys asked if I wanted to go back to his room, and I actually agreed to it. We ended up going to my room instead, because he’d been a dumb-ass and left his key card in his other pair of pants. Luckily my roommate, Kate, was somewhere else.
The first thing he asked me was, “Wait, you’re 18, right?”
I had just enough presence of mind to reply, “Of course I’m 18. How else would I be in college?”
Yeah, I was 18, which I know is probably a little old. I grew up with overzealous religious parents, who always kept me on a tight leash. One time, when I was about 16, I brought over a guy friend to help me install LimeWire on my computer so I could download more screamo shit (yes, I knew it would give my computer syphilis; no, I didn’t give a fuck). Well, my step-mom found out, and the next day she dragged me to the gynecologist and had me put on birth control. Then she called my strictly-platonic guy friend’s parents and told them their son wasn’t allowed to see me anymore. It was beyond awkward, and this was years before Zooey Deschanel made awkwardness sexy. From that point on, I knew my chances of having a normal high school dating life were virtually nil.
Of course, that all changed when I got to college. My parents actually let me live in the dorms, probably because they were sick of having me around. That first weekend on campus I jumped right into the partying, the (gasp!) underage drinking, and I think I made out with three guys and a girl all within just hours of meeting them. That was a fun night, and it definitely wasn’t the last one. Despite my wanton, reckless behavior, though, I never let it go all the way. It had nothing to do with morals. I just hadn’t decided it was the right time yet; I’d know when it was.
Obviously, my parents knew nothing about this. I kept my GPA at a 3.5, and they didn’t ask questions.
Then, I found out one of the student organizations I’d joined was taking a trip to North Carolina, to volunteer for a U.S. Senate candidate’s campaign.
“Of course you should go,” said my dad. “It’ll be a great learning experience.” He gladly wrote me the check for room and board and travel expenses.
Two weeks later, I checked into a quaint hotel in Antebellum-reminiscent North Carolina, with about a dozen 20-something-aged guys. My friend Kate and I were the only girls in the group. I had a running joke with these guys that I was an “anti-feminist,” that I liked being objectified. Mostly, I liked the male attention, which I could now have without the constant threat of punishment. Finally, I had the perfect opportunity to destroy the one thing my family had striven all my life to protect. I was going to fuck some random person, and there was nothing they could do about it.
I spent the entire bus ride considering which of those lovable fools would be the one to do it. I chose the 22-year-old one who was graduating that year. He was everything he was supposed to be: tall, good-looking, smart, but not that smart. Best of all, he lived a state away from me, so I’d never have to see him or talk to him again after that trip.
Not surprisingly, it didn’t require much effort. Like I said, we went back to my room. He locked the door, and we made out for a good two minutes or so. At some point, all my clothes came off. I really don’t remember much, except that when I told him it was my first time, he looked like I’d read him his death sentence.
“Oh, shit …” he said. He must have thought he’d make some lasting impression on me, when all he wanted to do was forget about it the next day.
“What,” I said, slightly annoyed, “should I just get dressed and leave?”
“No,” he said. Then he opened my legs and did stuff that had never been done to me before.
I admit, I liked it – I liked it a lot, actually. So much that I had to visually detach from it, because I couldn’t tolerate feeling anything that intensely. Instead, I rolled my head back and watched my slender shadow on the wall, arching my back every time his tongue moved. Moans of pleasure escaped my throat, but in a voice not my own. He didn’t notice and I didn’t care.
After a few minutes his lips broke contact. I felt him look up.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I breathed, still looking at the wall.
“I should probably get -” he began, but I spared him the awkwardness.
“It’s fine,” I said. “I’m on the pill.” As I had been, for the past two years. For once, it was proving itself useful.
“Okay,” he said.
Now, I knew that wasn’t the smartest way to go about it, but at this point I was beyond caring. I just wanted to get it over with. My shadow lay back against the bed, until I could no longer recognize it from the pillows and sheets.
I turned to him and stared at the ceiling behind his face instead. After he’d been so close to me, I didn’t want to see whatever look was in his eyes. He didn’t kiss me again, which I appreciated. I didn’t want his mouth anywhere near my face at that point. The lights were on the whole time. I would have preferred it in the dark, but I didn’t say anything. He didn’t take off a single item of clothing; he just unbuckled his belt and unzipped his pants. He leaned over me and I clasped my legs around just below his belt. I closed my eyes. Whatever it looked like, I didn’t need to see it. I just felt it go in and tried not to let too much pain show on my face.
When he was done, he got up and turned his back to me. I don’t remember a lot of blood; if there was, I didn’t see it.
“Okay, get dressed,” he said.
I did as I was told.
We walked down the empty hall without even looking at each other, and sneaked back to the party. My favorite news channel was on and the other guys were being loud and obnoxious. I stole a bottle of Jack and walked out, and no one even noticed.
The hotel had a nice little colonnade outside, like something you’d find in front of a Cracker Barrel. I sat in an Adirondack chair and watched a breeze whistle through the semicircular American flags draping down from the rafters. It was a good thing the chair had a cushion, or it would’ve felt like solid ice. I drank the whiskey from the bottle, and it had never tasted so good. This was the most American I’d ever felt in my life.
I took out my iPhone and scrolled through my music library, stopping at Amanda Palmer (I’ve loved her music since well before she married Neil Gaiman, so imagine my delight when the two of them hooked up). The song I picked was Runs In The Family – because if I had to have a “first time song,” this would be the one. For some reason, I’d been under the delusion that when I lost my innocence, a song would be playing that would make the moment indelible in my mind. Of course, that didn’t happen, and it was for the best; the less I remembered about the moment itself, the better. Still, if I’d been lucky enough for a moment worthy of its own background music, I’d have picked this song. I would have been violated to Amanda’s brazen voice and biting words, her sharp fingernails on piano keys, while violins sang in the background.
It would’ve been perfect, but it never happened.
Still, I wasn’t going to cheat myself out of my Amanda Palmer moment. I put on the song, and my spirit danced as my body lay in drunk exhaustion. Even the stars were winking at me, like they’d finally let me in on their infinite joke. I rested my head against the back of the chair, and I just watched the stars. The wind ran cold fingers up my spine and twisted the pine trees into evil-looking shapes, but I was too tired to move.
Probably because I was still pretty wasted, the night took on a life of its own. Its eerie stillness harkened back to centuries ago, when people still feared nocturnal things and lived by candlelight. As beautiful as it was, it gave me a strange feeling – as if some deep-seated dread we’d all buried in the 21st century was now scratching at the soil from underneath. It was frightening, but it was also beautiful.
At some point during Blake Says, I fell asleep.
I woke up in the middle of Lonesome Organist Rapes Page Turner (in the hours I was asleep, it must have exhausted Ms. Palmer’s solo album and gone right to her Dresden Dolls stuff). I paused the song and pulled my ear-buds out. Before, I’d heard the raucous laughter of my friends through the walls, TV voices murmuring, heavy bass rattling the floorboards. Now, there was only silence.
They’d turned all the lights off, both inside and out. I tried to switch my phone on again, in the hopes of using it as a light. Of course, the thing died just that second. It would have, since it had been on continuous shuffle for the past however-many hours. Just then, I realized I didn’t know what time it was, either.
The stars, though, were brilliant like I’d never seen before. Had there been a widespread blackout while I was asleep? That would explain the total absence of light pollution. I stood there a moment and took in the night sky; I might as well. It could have been light dancing on a black ocean – there were stars beyond stars beyond stars, layers going deeper than I ever knew existed. Still, it did little to offset the yawning cavern behind me that used to be a well-lit country inn.
I tried the porch door, half-expecting it would be locked. Luckily, it was open. I stepped inside, hoping to hear some indication that my friends were still there. After all, they couldn’t have all gone to bed, not a bunch of twenty-something college kids.
It suddenly occurred to me they might be staging some elaborate prank. I rolled my eyes, made a noise in the back of my throat.
“Come on, guys,” I called to the darkness, “this is stupid. Turn the lights on.”
No sound, not even a snicker. My mind set itself on edge, thinking they’d jump out at me any second. That almost prepared me for what I heard next.
Someone was running, bare feet on the wood floor. My heart splintered, sending electric shocks through every nerve.
“Guys?” I said, losing my annoyance to fear. “Seriously, this isn’t funny.”
Whatever had run across the floor, it stopped. Now there was no sound in the entire place – not even the hum of an air conditioner. It was like the building itself had died.
Then a door creaked open, somewhere far down the hall. I actually saw sparks in my eyes from pure shock. By now, needlepoint sweat pricked through every one of my pores.
At first I told myself, Don’t go near the door. I had every reason not to go near the door, starting with, the blonde always dies first when this shit happens.
Then I saw a faint light through the doorway, rose-colored and flickering – just like candlelight. A light had to mean someone was there. I thought, Maybe, just maybe, my friends are through that door. Then I can just find them, get pissed as hell at them for leaving me alone like that, drink some more Jack and pass out knowing everything is fine.
I crept up to the door, and peered inside the room. Someone was there, but it wasn’t anyone I knew. It was the image of a girl, stark-white, washing the floor on her knees, while a candle burned. Her long, ragged hair hung down, covering her face.
It was the scariest thing I’d ever seen.
I froze, as if I’d seen a spider. I can only say it’s like seeing a spider in the middle of the floor, only this spider is five feet tall. All I could think was, Don’t move, don’t move, don’t move – because I knew as soon as the thing moved, I’d be in full-on panic mode.
So, I felt the same way as I saw this girl, insubstantial by candlelight, dressed in the fashion of at least a century ago, leaning over the floor and weeping. Her hair fell in her face as she moved back and forth with the wash-rag. Both were the same spectral hue, as if the girl’s soul had bonded with the tear-soaked cloth.
There was a bed in the corner, with a worn-out mattress and torn sheets. This must have been her room.
All I could think was, Don’t look up, don’t look up, don’t look up.
Then a door creaked open, probably the front door. It slammed shut.
I wanted to shout out, Come on, guys, I know it’s you. Only this time, a deeper, wiser fear told me it wasn’t.
The girl went on scrubbing the floor. She looked real now; her solid form cast a shadow. I could hear her breathing. Then she set aside the washcloth, and I saw what she’d been fixated on – a loose nail in the floorboards. She was slowly, painfully prying it free.
Just then, creaking footsteps made their way up the hall, drawing closer and closer with each second. They sounded like heavy boots.
Tears fell like blood drops from my eyes, as I felt a terror beyond reason. I knew I shouldn’t turn around. There was something in the hallway, and I didn’t want to see it.
Then I heard a loud thump outside the door, like someone dropped something. I nearly bit my tongue off, and spun around.
There was nothing, just darkness and an empty door frame. I wiped the tears from my eyes and faced the room again.
I screamed, unable to stop myself.
The girl was on her feet, livid eyes staring straight at me. At first, I thought half her face had been ripped off. Then I realized the girl had the worst case of cleft-palate I’d ever seen. Half her lip wouldn’t close, and her tiny misshapen teeth stuck out in odd places. She looked to be about my age. My eyes swam with tears again – partly because I felt bad for her, and partly because I had no idea if she wished me harm.
Then something brushed past me. The form of a man shambled into the room, unmistakably drunk. His form was solid too, and unpleasantly real. He even smelled like crude backwoods liquor. I couldn’t see his face under his wide hat and scraggly beard, but I recognized his voice.
“You finish scrubbin’ those floors, little lady?” He probably looked and sounded a lot older than he was, but I couldn’t be sure.
The girl stood up straight. “Yes, Uncle Vern.” She spoke surprisingly well for having such a deformity.
He took off a dirty, patched-up coat that smelled like dead things, and tossed it on an old wooden chair.
“I found some deer whilst I was out huntin’ today,” he told the girl, taking uneven steps toward her. “A doe and a fawn. The ma got away, but I got the little ‘un, straight shot to the head. Once I skin the carcass you can cook ‘er for dinner, how’s that sound?”
The girl’s eyes looked wide and sad. “It sounds fine, Uncle Vern,” she said.
So far, neither of them acknowledged me. I must have been watching something that happened once, a long time ago; now it was locked inside these walls, doomed to replay over and over again. Maybe other people had seen it, too. Of course, that all occurred to me later. Trapped in the moment, all I could do was watch the vignette unfold.
“Turn around,” he said. “I don’t want to see them ornery teeth o’ yers.”
“Yes, Uncle Vern.”
She bent over onto the bed, like she’d done this many times before. He got behind her, lifted her skirt, unfastened his belt. His pants dropped and the belt buckle clattered on the floor.
I didn’t watch; it felt wrong, watching two strangers like some pervert. Instead, my eyes stayed on their shadows on the wall. They rocked back and forth in the unsteady candle-light. It made his silhouette inhuman, goblin-like. The girl sobbed as he pushed harder and faster.
“Quit yer whinin’,” he growled, and smacked her in the back of the head. “Yer ma was a whiner, too, and now she’s rotting in the ground.”
She obeyed, and stayed quiet. The bed springs creaked and groaned. This went on for some time until he got what he wanted. With a grunt that sounded both pained and satisfied, he shoved her down against the bed. His shadow just stood there, slackened, spent. The candle waxed and waned as he gasped to catch his breath.
He never would have expected the girl to get up, but she did. She pushed herself off the bed and twisted around. I heard a hideous squelching noise, almost like a water balloon bursting. Then the man howled in agony I couldn’t even imagine. My eyes flew from the shadows to the people casting them, just as the girl pushed her uncle to the floor. She got the hell out of there, rushing past me – through me, actually – to the door, and it felt like nothing. Her quick footsteps retreated down the hall, and my heart pounded even faster.
The man lay shrieking on the floor, eyes wild with pain that defied sanity. Both hands grabbed his crotch, where blood sputtered out in dark torrents. There was the nail, stuck in place between his white-knuckled fingers. She must have pierced an artery, if men even have one over there. Good for her.
“You goddamn whore,” he yelled as his eyes rolled back into his skull, “I’ll kill you, just you wait!” He went on cursing, until his voice died down to a low murmur. Soon, his color faded, and his physical form drained away. He floated in the air like cigarette smoke, and then he disappeared.
I stood there a while, unable to move, indifferent to time. Through the window, the night watered down to pale blue, then green. Dawn was just skimming over the jagged black trees.
Then a noise tore through the silence behind me, a noise that rent through past and present. I nearly died of shock. It took me a second to register what it was – a toilet flushing. I spun around.
There was the bathroom door, there was the hotel wallpaper. I was back in my room, now flooded in daylight. The door swung open, and Kate blundered out of the bathroom. She dragged a sparkly brush through her party-trashed, over-bleached hair.
I thought, Seriously, what the fuck just happened? What else could I possibly think?
“Hey, Taryn,” she said. “I don’t have vomit on me, do I?”
I looked her over. “No,” I said.
Just like that, the world returned to disappointing normalcy.
“So,” she asked, giving me that woman-to-woman conspiring look, “you and Brandon? Last night?”
That’s right, his name was Brandon. I almost forgot.
“Yeah, I fucked him,” I said. “Are we leaving soon?” The bus was scheduled to pick us up that morning, to begin the long cross-country drive home.
“I have no idea,” said Kate, flopping down on her bed while she texted someone.
I sighed and went up to the window. The bus was just rolling up to the hotel lobby.
“Shit,” I said, “the bus is here. We better pack.”
“Shit,” Kate echoed.
We scrambled as quickly as we could to get all our shit together, which isn’t easy for two girls. I finished first because I’m slightly more organized. Within a minute, one of the guys pounded his fist against the door. Naturally, I jumped. Last night was over, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t still on edge.
“Jesus Motherfucking Christ,” I hissed.
“You girls done packing up?” called the guy outside the door. It was the guy in charge of our group, not Brandon, thank god.
“Yeah,” I shouted through the door. I flung it open, and Kate and I hauled all our stuff to the lobby in one trip. Most of the guys, of course, were already in the bus, and impatient to leave. I threw my duffel bag in the storage compartment and climbed up into that monster of a vehicle.
As soon as I got to the aisle, the stupid looks on the guys’ faces told me they knew everything. Despite my best effort to keep my composure, a shameless smirk crept into my face.
“Shut up,” I said to my leering idiot friends.
I sat down, as far away from the guy I’d fucked as possible.
Within minutes, we were off. I didn’t even look at the Inn one last time; I didn’t need to. Instead, I got my phone out. It was all I’d have to alleviate my boredom for the next 48 hours.
Just out of curiosity, I Googled the history of the Inn. I scanned it for past residents, violent deaths – anything that might cause a ghost to get attached. It didn’t take much effort to find something.
The place was built in the early 1800s by the well-to-do Gorman family. Then, after the Civil War, their finances went to hell, and the place eventually fell to disrepair. In time, the family itself suffered a worse kind of decay – the slow kind that results from years of isolation, and bad genes confined to a small, stagnant pool. The last Gorman to own the property was Lavern, a disreputable drunk.
It’s possible he actually suffered from a mood disorder that would’ve been impossible to diagnose at the time, but no one will ever know. According to rumor, he abused his younger sister in every possible way, until she finally died and he buried her in the woods. She wasn’t even listed as having a name.
Local records, though, indicated Vern’s sister might have had a daughter, possibly with Vern as the father. This girl, oddly enough, did have a name – April. The archives of a nearby convent (now abandoned) showed that a young woman named April Gorman became a nun in 1879. After that year, however, history makes no further mention of her.
April Gorman – that was the bad-ass ghost girl’s name.
I scrolled down, and found one last mention of Lavern Gorman. It was an autopsy report from the county’s oldest hospital. Cause of death said, “Tetanus.”
The rusty nail, I thought. Good for you, April.
I closed my eyes, and ended up sleeping for most of the ride home.
This story has no moral, no message. I’m not going to make some high-minded case for feminism. Objectify women, if you must.
Just don’t be surprised when we turn into sharp objects.