by Ray O’Bannon

Friday, 3:34 pm

Mike applies more pressure to the brakes as the Chevy slides down the winding mountain road. The granite canyon blocks the daylight on either side, leaving Mike’s car and the motor home following him both in an eerie twilight.

The motor home has been riding his bumper impatiently for several minutes, making him a nervous wreck. A sign with some of its paint shotgun blasted away says ‘Slow Car Pull Off Ahead’ and Mike can now see a small bit of shoulder beside the road, just past the next curve. He coasts into it and lets the motor home blaze by, leaving a cloud of dust that coats the back of his throat as he rolls up the window.

This trip had been a spur of the moment idea, and Mike is beginning to think it was a bad one. He had taken a fresh batch of paintings from his home in Nebraska to his friend Jake’s gallery in Denver, Colorado. His previous canvases had all been sold and Jake had even given him a small advance on the new batch. Having a little extra cash was a nice change of pace, and Mike wasn’t particularly anxious to get back to his studio.

When he passed the sign saying ‘Harrison National Forest - Next Right’ he couldn’t help considering that the leaves were just beginning to turn, and that he’d always meant to tour the mountains but had always kept to the interstate instead. This time he turned right and headed up into the forest.

What he hadn’t expected was that the winding mountain road would continue upward ever higher until Mike, a flatlander who didn’t particularly care for heights, was gripping the steering wheel in a mild panic. For the most part, the road had no shoulders, just a steep granite wall to the right and a sheer drop to the river below on the left. Deep down Mike had been hoping for a little adventure, some mild excitement. He’s now getting much more excitement than he had intended as he nervously drives the Chevy onward.

Friday, 5:24 pm

Several little towns pass by, the weathered and neglected buildings resembling headstones. There must have been a time, Mike reasons, when the lumber and mining industries had made these little towns profitable. But then came the interstate highways, and these suddenly isolated settlements were forced to become mere novelties, tourist traps to entice the rich and frivolous, or were abandoned, left to crumble and decay. Mike drives by a small group of collapsing houses and barns. Broken glass glitters in a few of the window frames, reminding him of shark’s teeth.

After several more miles, Mike reaches Cedar Gulch. ‘Finally’, he thinks with relief, ‘a large enough town to have a motel’. He’s been gripping the wheel so hard his shoulders hurt, and a few hours rest might be nice. Maybe even a room for the night. But the three tacky looking motels that line the road all say ’No Vacancy’, the glaring red signs seeming somehow hostile.

Friday, 6:37 pm

At the edge of town, just before the road leads even higher into the mountains, stands a small gas station. As Mike drives by, he notices a man flipping the OPEN sign on the doorway around to say CLOSED. Lights are blinking off in the room behind him. Mike realizes the last of the daylight is beginning to fade. He glances briefly at the map lying on the passenger seat. It shows Cedar Gulch as being roughly half way between where the old mountain road leaves and then rejoins the interstate. Mike hasn’t seen any vacancies anywhere since leaving the highway, and the notion of driving back along this twisting mountain road in the dark is vaguely terrifying, so turning back isn’t much of an option.

Mike reasons that the road ahead must start sloping back downward soon, it couldn’t possibly get much higher, and then the drive should be much less nerve wracking, even in the dark. He hasn’t checked the map to see what’s past Cedar Gulch but there must be more mountain towns along the way. Mike tries to stay calm as he crosses a small covered bridge and the road again slopes upward.

Friday, 7:15pm

Mike’s sweating as he steers the car onward. The mountainside drops away as the road rises above the tree line. With every curve the land seems to drop further away, as though the car has been flung into the early evening sky. Then, Mike sees another small pull off. He parks as far from the edge as possible, trying not to look out over the drop off. He switches on the dome light and studies the map carefully. No more towns between Cedar Gulch and the interstate, just a green area on either side of the road that’s labeled ‘Wilderness’.

‘OK’, he tells himself, ‘just calm down. There’s still no point turning back since there’s no place to stay anyhow. The road does seem to level out and then head downward from here. Just keep driving and you’ll eventually be back down out of these damn mountains, and I think there’s a Motel 6 someplace along the Highway’. Thus encouraged, Mike pulls back onto the mountain road and continues on his way.

A short while later Mike is smiling with relief as he reads a freshly painted sign by the roadside. The unexpected sign says ‘Malcolm Hotel - Next Right’. A smaller sign proclaims 'Vacancy'. Mike steers the car onto a narrow dirt road. No more worries about driving at night, just get a room and relax, drive back to the interstate in the morning and head home. Things are finally looking up. Maybe even finish those ghost stories he had been reading. ‘Did I pack that book?’ he wonders absently.

Friday, 7:42 pm

The Chevy rounds a curve and an elegant sign becomes visible in the gathering dusk. ‘Welcome to the Malcolm Hotel’. Beyond the sign Mike sees the building itself rise up out of the darkness. He’s amazed at the grandeur of the massive structure, a four story colonial monstrosity, complete with a bell tower, standing mutely at the end of a small parking area. Huge French windows, most of them darkened, stare blankly out at him.

Mike parks, grabs his suitcase from the back of the car and walks toward the building. Several other cars are parked here and there, but none of them look very new. Mike decides the prices here must not be too unreasonable. He approaches the front porch and begins to climb the steps. A cold chill suddenly seems to sweep through him, clutching his heart and stopping the breath in his lungs. And then it’s gone, leaving him standing there bewildered. What in the world? It must have been a breeze. But it was so cold… well, it’s not important. Time to get a room for the night.

He climbs the steps and crosses the freshly painted porch to grasp one of the ornate brass door handles. The dark wooden door swings open with a squeal and Mike finds himself standing in the entrance of a large lobby. He feels an enormous sense of relief. He’s so glad to be here, because he suddenly feels so tremendously weary. It must be from the tension of driving those high mountain roads, but the suitcase suddenly feels so much heavier, and his legs are even trembling a little. Definitely time for some rest. ‘I’m so glad I found this place’ he thinks to himself.

Friday, 7:45 pm

The dimly lit lobby is as elegant as it is large, the walls adorned with a dark green wallpaper that looks decidedly antique. The walls and ceiling are framed with dark wood, elaborately carved. To the left is a massive fireplace and beyond are two dark wooden doors, standing open to reveal a dark but apparently large room beyond. A sign above the door reads ‘ShadowLark Ballroom’. Glancing to the right, Mike notices two brass panels that appear to be elevator doors, a set of open wooden doors with a ‘Dining Room’ sign standing beside them, and a closed set of doors at the far end of the room, a sign above these reading ‘Music Chamber’. Directly ahead is a front desk illuminated by a small lamp, and an extremely ornate set of stairs leading upward.

For a moment, looking at the unoccupied front desk, Mike feels a faint sense of unease. It’s as though a little voice in the back of his mind is trying to say something, trying as hard as it can to scream something, to be heard, but then the sensation is over. Mike chuckles. He’s just tired, and standing here is like stepping back in time, back into the 20’s. The décor is simply amazing. Who wouldn’t feel a little strange at first? This sort of place just takes a minute to get used to, and it’s been a long day. He steps forward and rings the service bell.

Friday, 7:47 pm

After a few minutes wait, a door in the back of the small office opens and a man enters, giving Mike a polite smile as he takes his place behind the front desk. Mike is somewhat startled at the man’s appearance… very tall and remarkably thin, the man’s complexion seeming an unhealthy yellow in the dim lighting. Nearly bald, thin patches of grey hair falling over his collar. And there’s something about his face… the hollow cheeks and the smile that seems so awkward, almost as though he hasn’t smiled in a very long time, so long that it’s become awkward to remember how. And his eyes, they’re like little black stones.

“Good evening, sir. Welcome to the Malcolm Hotel. How may I be of assistance?”

The man’s voice is soft and cultured, putting Mike somewhat more at ease.

“I was hoping you might have a room available for the night”.

“Most definitely, sir” responds the man, turning to draw a large leather registration book from beneath the desk. “Although the second floor is nearly full, we do have one room remaining there and I’m quite sure you’ll find it more than satisfactory.”

The man then quotes Mike a price that seems reasonable and Mike neatly signs his name in the register as the tall man turns to take a key from one of the pegs on the back wall.

“I’m afraid the elevator has been out of service for some time, and most of our staff has been excused for the evening, but I shall be more than happy to assist you with your luggage, sir”. He hands Mike a room key, the brightly polished brass tab bearing the number 213.

“That’s fine” Mike smiles, “I travel light, just one bag”.

“Very well, sir. My name is Lloyd. I’m the night auditor here at the Malcolm Hotel. Please call the front desk if there’s anything we might do to further assist you.”

Mike starts toward the staircase but turns back after a few steps. “There is one thing, Lloyd… I’m curious, how old is this Hotel? It’s magnificent.”

The smile on Lloyds face seems suddenly more genuine. “This establishment” he says with obvious pride, “is over a hundred years old. It was built by Charles Malcolm and opened for business in 1901. It has, in it’s time, catered to the richest and most famous of society.”

“This Charles Malcolm, he must have been awfully wealthy.”

“Ah yes, but most of his resources were spent in the construction of this Hotel. His desire was to provide, to the greatest extent possible, an elegant and distinguished travel destination. He himself served as night auditor here at the hotel for three years.”

“Only three years? Then what, he got tired of it?” Mike’s inquisitive smile is met with a suddenly cold stare.

“Mr. Malcolm was shot to death while attempting to defend a servant from an intruder here at the Hotel. He was a very fine man.” An awkward silence lingers for a moment before Lloyd continues. “If you require nothing further then I shall wish you a good evening. Your room is on the second floor, seven doors down and to the left. I hope you have a pleasant stay.”

The man’s turns his cold eyes away from Mike, the thin forced smile dropping from his face as he does so. Mike heads up the elegant staircase, feeling like an ill mannered fool.

Glancing up, Mike sees a plump middle aged couple coming down the stairs, and can’t help feeling a little better about himself. The man is wearing a bright orange sports jersey with a large number seven in blue on the front. His plaid trunks reveal hairy thighs. White tube socks with green stripes reach from his knees to his ugly white sneakers (which feature purple splotches). The woman’s outfit is equally garish and seems unflatteringly tight.

Mike can’t help chuckling to himself. They look so silly, so out of place standing there on these elegant stairs. He gazes down at his scuffed black dress shoes as they go by, the man’s cheap cologne suddenly stinging his nostrils. Mike‘s own cloths are wrinkled from the drive, and the slacks and shirt are a bit threadbare, but he still feels fairly presentable. ‘I may not have a million bucks’ he thinks to himself, ‘and my paintings aren’t likely to change that anytime soon, but at least I know how to put on some cloths’.

He reaches the top of the stairs. The weariness he felt upon entering the hotel is now almost overpowering. The drive seems to have left him completely exhausted. He walks slowly down the quiet dimly lit hallway, finding a door near the end with an ornate brass plate reading 213. He fumbles the key into the antique keyhole below the doorknob, marveling that the hotel hasn’t updated to electronic door locks. The latch opens with a hollow click and Mike enters room 213.

Friday, 8:20pm

The room is nicely appointed with antique furnishings but Mike only really notices the bed. He’s so tired. Not bothering to unpack, he tosses his jacket and suitcase into the small closet across from the bed before collapsing onto the mattress. It’s a little lumpy but not uncomfortable. He kicks off his shoes and lies staring at the ceiling. All he wants is some sleep. But that little voice in the back of his mind still seems to be trying to scream something. He suddenly feels too tense to sleep, oddly nervous for some reason.

‘Why so jumpy?’ he wonders. ‘I made it here safe and sound, I‘m fine, just need to calm down’.

The book of ghost stories, he loves those, why not grab the book from his suitcase and read for a while. He glances across the room at the closed closet door. Hadn’t he left that open? Apparently not.

He unlatches the closet door and opens it, the rusty hinges squealing in protest. He zips open the suitcase and finds the book. He then shoves the closet door closed, hearing the hollow metallic click of the latch, and returns to the bed.

The ghost stories, which Mike usually enjoys, don’t seem to be drawing him in. He can’t seem to concentrate on them this evening. He lies there staring at the ceiling for a short while. Are there still any mints in his jacket pocket? He’s too tired to journey back downstairs to the hotel’s dining room, and not particularly hungry, but perhaps a few mints… he glances over at the open closet door. Yes, he sees the roll of mints resting in a pocket of the jacket. He retrieves a few mints absently, then returns to the bed, not bothering to close the closet door.

Tired of staring at the ceiling, Mike picks the book back up and again tries to focus on the stories. For a few moments he finds himself getting involved with the fiction, relaxing and sinking into the text. Then his bedside lamp blinks out.

He fumbles around in the sudden darkness, which is so complete that a little knot of fear begins to form in the pit of his stomach. But now his groping hands find the lamp and he’s able to pull the little chain. The light blinks on with a click and Mike finds himself able to breathe again. He’s mildly shocked at how completely unnerving the sudden darkness had been, how inexplicably terrifying.

He settles back into the bed and returns his mind to the book. The stories once again draw him gradually away from his current surroundings and into their mythical realm. He’s finding himself relaxing a little. Then the light goes out again.

More scrambling about in the dark. His nervous fingers again find the lamp chain and click on the light. Mike leans over the edge of the bed, staring down behind the nightstand. Is the plug loose in its socket? No, it seems to be connected snugly to the outlet. And now he realizes that even if a loose plug were the problem, pulling the chain shouldn’t have turned the lamp on twice in a row. Should it? He isn’t sure, he’s so tired, why worry about it. He tosses the book across the room, hearing it thump against the closed closet door as he settles back into the bed.

He clicks the light off and stares into the darkness. Having created this darkness intentionally, he finds it less suffocating, less threatening than before. At least for a little while. But now that inexplicable nervousness is beginning to return. And the light clicks back on.

He stares at the lamp, then glances around the empty room. The sound of footsteps echo outside in the hallway. Mike hears a door slam closed and then a second door thump closed more softly. Then silence.

Mike reaches behind the nightstand and unplugs the lamp. He settles back into the bed and closes his weary eyes. Now he can hear a faint slamming noise, as though shutters were banging in a heavy wind. But there’s no wind. The sound seems distant and Mike’s very tired. A troubled sleep begins to overwhelm him.

Friday, 9:32 pm

The sound of footsteps again fills the hallway. There seem to be several people crossing the hall and gathering around outside the doorway. Mike snaps awake as a woman’s voice begins speaking.

“And here, ladies and gentleman, we have room 213, possibly one of the most haunted rooms in the hotel.” There is a murmuring of several voices and a few nervous laughs as Mike sits upright in the darkness, listening to these strangers outside his door.

“This was, of course, Mr. Malcolm’s private room during the years he attended to the duties of night auditor here in this magnificent hotel.” Mike continues listening in amazement. “Mr. Malcolm could, however, often be found upstairs on the fourth floor. Officially, the fourth floor was reserved for nannies and hotel staff. But there were rumors that Charles Malcolm was running a brothel up there. Some claim he would intentionally interfere with married couples in Cedar Gulch, hoping to drive them apart. The husband would then be more likely to avail himself of Mr. Malcolm’s services, while the wife, finding few other jobs available, might eventually join Mr. Malcolm’s ‘staff’ on the fourth floor.” Mike hears a few muffled snickers from the assembled group.

“Many said Charles Malcolm had a heart made of stone” continues the speaker, “while others said he had no heart at all. Everyone agrees, however, that he was deeply involved in the occult.” At this point a chill runs down Mike’s spine. “And the writings found after his death suggest he was trying to draw as many people as possible to this hotel so he could somehow drain their spiritual energy, to be used later for purposes unknown. But you can read more about all of this in Hank’s new book ‘Spirits of the Prairie’. Isn’t that right, Hank?” More murmuring from the group and a man’s harsh barking laugh.

Mike decides he’s heard enough of this silliness. It’s time to ask these people to please move along so he can get some rest. He fumbles in the dark until finding the lamp chain, then clicks on the lamp. Wait, hadn’t he unplugged the lamp? He glances behind the nightstand to see the plug firmly attached to the outlet. Hmmm… doesn’t matter. He stumbles to the door and opens it to find a group of roughly 15 people standing in the hall.

The group encircles a small thin middle aged lady dressed, it seems to Mike, as a gypsy. Among the crowd Mike notices the man in the orange jersey.

“Oh my goodness!” stammers the gypsy, “I’m so sorry. I had no idea the room was in use. Please forgive our having bothered you.” She steps away from the door but another female voice in the crowd asks “Can we see inside the room?”

“I’m sorry” Mike begins, “But I’m a little tired right now…”

The man in the orange jersey again issues that harsh barking laugh. “What’s the matter?” he asks with a grin, “Got a girlie in there?”

Mike finds himself preparing to say something rather harsh to the man, but the gypsy is now grabbing the man’s arm and steering him away from the door. “Good heavens, Hank” she chuckles, “We all promised we wouldn’t disturb the guests. Wouldn’t want to get in trouble with the management, much less the ghost of old Charles Malcolm.” More nervous laughter as the group begins drifting away from the doorway. “Besides” continues the gypsy as they shuffle down the hall, “there are so many haunted rooms in this hotel. Why, the whole place is probably haunted!”

Mike closes the door as the group drifts away, their fading chatter leaving him vaguely aggravated. What nonsense. Nothing wrong with a good ghost story, but to take it seriously? Absurd. He glances at the open closet door, considers grabbing a few more mints, then turns instead to the bed and falls once more onto the mattress. He clicks off the lamp. Sleep comes quickly there in the darkness.

Friday, 10:49 pm

Mike jerks awake to a metallic clanking noise coming from somewhere down the hall. His mind briefly pictures a freight train but then Mike realizes it must be the antique elevator. They must have gotten it repaired. But he’s surprised they’d use it so late at night, considering all the noise it seems to make.

He turns over restlessly to stare up towards the darkened ceiling. The sound of banging shutters resumes, louder than before. More doors thump open and closed in the hallway, and now Mike can hear children running back and forth just outside his door. It sounds as though they’re bouncing a rubber ball as they sing what seems to be a nursery rhyme of some sort.

Feeling quite annoyed by all of this, Mike eventually clicks on the lamp and rises to open the door. For just a split second, as the light snaps on, Mike thinks he sees the shadow of a man standing in the corner of the room. Then, just as suddenly, the shadow is gone, leaving Mike staring at the blank wooden surface of the closed closet door.

Mike opens the door to room 213, peering out into the empty hallway. The kids seem to be gone, so he closes the door and returns to the bed. A few seconds later the sound of playing children again fills the hallway just beyond his door. He can hear them running by the door as he rises to open it, even feel the vibration of a rubber ball bouncing off the outside of the door as he swings it open. But the hallway is empty once more. Something seems wrong here, something doesn’t feel right at all.

The sounds of running feet come from somewhere overhead and again the sounds of the rubber ball bouncing. The children now seem to be playing in the rooms and hallways of the floor above him, the third floor. Mike finds himself frustrated to the point of genuine anger. Stepping back into his room, Mike lifts the little antique phone from the nightstand and tries to dial the front desk. He hears only silence. The phone’s completely dead. He stomps out into the hallway, marching down the hall to the staircase and then up towards the next floor.

As Mike nears the landing he can’t help noticing that the third floor hallway is in darkness, the only light coming from a large French window at the far end of the hall. Moonlight filters in, falling upon faded wallpaper that hangs in ragged strips here and there in the now silent hallway. The woodwork seems dull and slightly warped in places. Mike can see faint cobwebs stretching between the walls. No children, no rubber balls, just an empty hallway. And a heavy sensation of dread. The air suddenly seems suffocating and Mike feels smothered by the darkness.

He stumbles uncertainly down the stairs, past the second floor landing and on down to the lobby. It’s time to have a chat with Lloyd.

Friday, 11:42 pm

The tall thin man is standing patiently behind the front desk. His smile seems a little less artificial now, a bit more sincere. Mike approaches him slowly.

“Excuse me, Lloyd, but I’m having a problem in 213...” Mike begins, wondering how to communicate all of the odd things he’s been experiencing.

“I’m very sorry to hear that, sir” replies Lloyd in a calming tone. “As a guest of the Malcolm Hotel, your absolute comfort and satisfaction are of the highest importance to us. In what manner have you been displeased?”

Mike stands staring up into those calm cold eyes for a moment, those eyes like little black stones, and Mike finds his willpower fading. He had intended to complain rather loudly about all the distractions, but now it seems like a fairly poor idea. This stern figure behind the front desk seems far too intimidating, there’s something vaguely menacing about him.

“There just seems to be a lot of noise up there” Mike stammers weakly. “First it was those ghost hunter people, then that noisy elevator and all those kids running back and forth on the second and third floor. I’m sorry but I’m awfully tired and I’d like to get some rest…”

“But of course, sir.” Lloyd’s smile has wavered and he now looks a little uncertain. “We shall be happy to relocate you to another room. I’m sorry you were bothered by the… paranormal researchers” and here he actually sniffs disdainfully. “We do, of course, welcome all travelers. But I must admit these fanciful ghost legends can be most detrimental to the operations of a fine hotel. As for the elevator, I’m afraid it remains quite inoperable. As for children making noise in the halls, I can assure you, sir, that there are presently no children staying here at the Malcolm. And the third floor, I’m sorry to say, is in a dismal state of disrepair. We haven’t given anyone a room there in quite some time.”

Mike finds he has no idea how to respond to this. But Lloyd’s uncertain look has once again been replaced by the polite, if unconvincing, smile. “No matter, good sir, we shall gladly provide you with another room. As I mentioned earlier, the second floor is full with the exception of room 213. And as I’ve explained, the third floor is not currently in useable condition. The fourth floor is in even worse condition, but room 401 has been completely remodeled and I’m sure you’ll find it quite comfortable.”

Lloyd pulls another key from the rear wall, this one attached to a tarnished silver tab. He places the key in Mike’s hand, then grabs a flashlight from a nearby shelf before stepping around the front desk. “If you’ll be kind enough to follow me, sir…”

The two men head up the stairway. Mike’s wondering why he isn’t feeling any sense of relief in any of this. Surely the forth floor room will be fine as long as it’s in good repair. And it sounds as though it will be nice and quiet. But the gypsy lady’s words echo through the back of his mind as he climbs the stairs. “So many haunted rooms in this hotel… why, the whole place is probably haunted!”

Friday, 11:51 pm

The two men stop by room 213 to retreive Mike's luggage. Mike feels stunned as he gazes past the open closet door. He had thrown his jacket on the closet floor beside his suitcase, he was sure of it. But the jacket now hangs tidily from a wooden hanger, the suitcase zipped neatly closed and resting on an ornate stand. The book of ghost stories is no longer lying on the floor. It’s been torn into shreds which now fill the waste basket near the nightstand. The bed is neatly made with no sign of having been used.

Seeing no reason to say anything to his hollow cheeked companion, Mike simply gathers his belongings, again reassuring the night auditor that he can carry everything himself, and follows the tall thin man back to the staircase.

They reach the dark landing of the third floor, Lloyd’s flashlight beam briefly illuminating the warped wood and ragged wallpaper. Then they continue upward. Mike notices the ornate hand rail has become wobbly, chipped paint marring the once smooth surface. The steps creak and sag as Mike places his weigh on them.

“I hope you’ll forgive the low ceilings and somewhat smaller rooms on the fourth floor” says Lloyd as they approach the next landing. “This floor was originally used by our hotel staff. Although repairmen were recently commissioned to effect repairs on both the third and fourth floors, they completed the renovation of only one room before resigning their task with no explanation. We’ve been unable to find anyone else with the skill needed to restore these chambers properly.

It’s much like the problem of finding a repairman for the elevator, or for the telephones.” Lloyd scowls, his unpleasant features seeming to float in the darkness. “Since all those ridiculous ghost stories have been spreading around, it’s become harder and harder to find anyone willing to help maintain this rare and wondrous building. And these revolting simpletons who come here now, searching for ghosts as though such a being might suddenly manifest itself for their mere entertainment… Blood of the Gods!”

Lloyd seems to realize he’s said more than he intended. His forced smile returns. “Your room, sir” he states quietly as they reach the fourth floor.

Mike is shocked at the advanced decay in evidence beyond the landing. Only small patches of wallpaper remain. The woodworking is badly warped with sections missing altogether in some places. Cobwebs fill most of the hall. But the door nearest the stairs seems to have been recently refinished, a shiny brass plate with the number 401 adorning its center. Mike slides the key into the latch and hears it click quietly open.

Lloyd hands Mike the flashlight. “This may be convenient if you should need anything further from downstairs. And now, kind sir, I shall bid you goodnight.” Mike can’t help being reminded of the rodent-like vampire from the film Nosferatu as Lloyd turns silently away and drifts back down the stairs.

Friday, 12:00 midnight

Closing the door behind him, Mike’s tired eyes scan room 401. The ceiling is indeed low and the room quite small, but everything seems to be in reasonably good condition. The bedside lamp glows brightly. The floorboards creak but don’t feel as though they might crumble or break. And the lumpy little bed looks inviting enough. Mike drops his belongings near the door and flops exhaustedly onto the bed. He smiles slightly, enjoying the complete silence of the room. Sleep again overcomes his weary senses.

Saturday, 12:13 am

A jagged metallic clanking fills the room. Mike jerks awake in fear, then recognizes the sound. It’s the elevator again, although it now seems much louder than before. He realizes this room is much closer to the shaft than room 213, the elevator now shaking the walls as it grinds its way up to the fourth floor.

Mike wonders why Lloyd would lie about the lift being functional. But now the noise stops, replaced by the sound of the ornate elevator doors sliding open. Mike hears several people exit the lift and walk down the hallway, bits of soft conversation drifting through the wall as they step past his doorway. Then the clanking returns, fading away only slowly as the elevator drops back down towards the lobby. What could those people be doing up here on this ruined level? Mike can’t imagine, but his blurry mind feels too weary to hang on to his thoughts properly and he finds himself lying back to let sleep wash over him once more.

Saturday, 1:24 am

The sounds of running feet and screaming children bring Mike back to a blurry wakefulness. He suddenly realizes the kids are no longer singing any nursery rhymes, they’re screaming as though in extreme terror. He glances quickly around the dim room, noticing the bedside lamp, still switched on but now casting only a weak unhealthy glow. The sounds don’t seem to be coming from outside 401’s door, but rather from somewhere above the room. Part of Mike’s mind tries to insist that this isn’t possible, that there isn’t anything up there above this room except a few feet of crawlspace and then the open night sky. But this voice of reason is drowned out by a new sound. A woman, somewhere here on the fourth floor, is now screaming at the top of her lungs.

The ragged screams echo down the hallway as Mike hears frantic footsteps racing over the dry rotting floorboards. The footsteps seem to draw near and now the desperate screaming seems to come from just outside Mike‘s door. The door begins shaking violently as someone outside twists the handle. Mike jumps from the bed, quickly crossing the dim chamber to swing open the door. He stares out into the empty hallway, stunned by the complete silence that now seems to fill the entire hotel.

Closing the door softly, Mike leans weakly against the door frame and tries to make sense of these nightmarish events. His gaze slips downward and he now notices the lines for the first time. There are several thin lines crossing the floor, dark red lines that resemble streaks of dried blood. Mike’s eyes follow the lines for a moment. Then Mike gasps at the realization of what he’s looking at. The lines form a large pentagram on the floor of the room.

More footsteps are now echoing up and down the hallway, the heavy boot steps of a large man. There’s a sudden violent crash and the sound of splintering wood. Then another similar crash. Mike realizes someone is kicking open the doors. More heavy footsteps and now the woman is screaming again. Suddenly a gunshot shakes the walls and Mike hears a man’s tortured cursing.

“Damn you all to hell, Charley Malcolm! I curse you, curse you for a hunnert years!” More gunshots shake the walls, more screams ring out, both male and female. Then a sudden silence, broken only by Mike’s racing heartbeat.

A cold sweat breaks out on Mike’s forehead. The little voice in the back of his mind finally begins to make itself heard. ‘You need to get out of here!’ it shouts. ‘Things are all wrong in this place, you need to run, don’t look down the hallway, just open the door and run for those stairs as fast as you can. You’ve got to get away. Now!’

He feels so tired, so terribly weak, but he somehow knows the voice is right. Mike grabs the flashlight but it’s dead, useless. He throws it down, then grabs his jacket, his car keys jangling in one of the pockets, pulls the door quickly open and races for the staircase. As the door swings open, the feeble bedside lamp goes out. But there’s a thin strip of moonlight piercing the hallway‘s gloom, enough light, just barely, for Mike to reach the staircase. He grasps the railing with sweating palms, unable to resist taking one quick glance back, a glance that reveals dozens of shadowy figures drifting through the ruined hallway. The stench of gunpowder fills his nostrils as he dashes down the stairs.

He works his way down the staircase as quickly as possible, terrified that a misstep might at any moment send him tumbling broken to the lobby below. He somehow reaches the lobby safely, but now finds the night auditor Lloyd to be once more absent from the front desk. Mike stands there trying to think. He’s just heard shooting on the fourth floor, he can’t drive off into the night without at least telling someone.

Saturday, 1:45 am

To his right Mike hears a piano playing, the notes echoing strangely through the empty lobby. He turns and paces quickly to the Music Chamber. The large wooden doors are open to reveal an elegant white room, a grand piano gracing the far side. Moonlight spills through French windows, casting the room in an ethereal glow.

Mike stands stunned in the chamber doorway. From the piano come the complex strains of a classical piece Mike can’t identify. It sounds like something by Brahms. But there’s no one sitting at the piano. As Mike stares horrified, he sees the piano keys being depressed.

He steps forward in disbelief, but as he crosses the threshold the music stops. He stands shocked for a moment, his heart hammering in his chest. Then he hears faint voices behind him.

As he turns and crosses the lobby, he can hear the voices more clearly. It sounds like a large crowd of people, laughing and celebrating, just beyond the closed doors of the ShadowLark Ballroom. The noise grows louder as Mike hears a live orchestra begin playing a Swing tune from the 1920’s.

Mike stumbles exhaustedly across the lobby and makes his way to the ballroom doors, the noise increasing with every step. He throws open the doors to reveal a dark empty chamber, the laughter and music instantly stopping as the large wooden doors swing apart.

Mike spins around in confusion to see Lloyd now standing calmly behind the front desk. Mike races over to the man, near tears at the sight of another human being. However ugly, here at least is someone he can reach out to, someone who might help him through this night of madness.

“Lloyd, you’ve got to do something!” Mike stammers, clutching the front desk. “There’s been a murder on the fourth floor, maybe several!”

The tall thin man stares down at him with obvious distain. “Forgive me, sir, but I do think this is a bit much. I’ve done my best to accommodate you, but claims of noise from an elevator that isn’t functioning, or claims of non existent children screaming, that’s one thing. To stand here raving about murder having been committed on the grounds of the Malcolm Hotel… well, sir, that is something else entirely. And I must say it’s in entirely bad taste.” The glare from Lloyd’s cold eyes is withering.

“We at the Malcolm shall be pleased to serve you for the duration of your stay, but I’m afraid no further vacancies will be available to you. And now, sir, if there is nothing else…”

Lloyd turns away from Mike, moving towards the door in the back of the office. As he turns, Mike is astonished to see him change, melt, into nothing more than a skeleton, moonlight glimmering on its cold dry bones. And a split second later there is no one standing there at all.

Mike screams. Then the shock numbs his brain, his body now running on autopilot. He dashes across the lobby and barrels through the front doors. As he stumbles across the porch and down the front steps, strains of that haunting 20’s Swing tune again reach his ears, along with the shouts and laughter of a large crowd.

He somehow gets the Chevy started and floors it as he clears the parking area. There isn’t any other traffic as he glides down the twisting mountain road. His panic eventually lessens, offset by an exhausted sense of relief at having escaped from that nightmarish place.

Saturday, 2:54 am

Ahead Mike sees the picturesque little covered bridge that sits just past Cedar Gulch. He knows there’s no place to stay, not even an open gas station, but it feels wonderful just to be someplace where there are other people, people who don’t turn into skeletons and vanish.

Friday, 6:37 pm

Mike crosses the covered bridge and steers the Chevy down the twisting road to Cedar Gulch. He notices the sky, it seems suddenly brighter than it was a moment ago. The sun couldn’t be rising yet, could it? Then Mike’s attention is drawn to the gas station and he smiles broadly. The lights are still on, the station’s still open. But a man is flipping the OPEN sign on the doorway around to say CLOSED. Lights are blinking off in the room behind him.

Mike pulls into the station’s parking lot. The man inside hesitates, then flips the sign back around to say OPEN. He waves to someone in back and the room lights blink back on.

“How you doin’, young feller?” smiles the man as Mike steps inside. “I was just fixin’ to shut down for the night, but then I saw you drive by and figured you might turn back for something‘, dunno why exactly, just kinda had a feelin’ you might need something’ or other.”

Mike ponders this for a confused moment. He’s sure it’s been over nine hours since he first drove by the station, and he’s seen no other traffic while returning here. Ah well, it doesn’t matter. Those cinnamon rolls look good, and so does that coffee.

As he’s leaving the station, Mike can’t help pausing and turning back to the man. And he can’t help asking “Excuse me, but I don’t suppose you’ve ever heard anything about the Malcolm being… ummm… being haunted or… ummm…. anything like that?” Now that it’s past his lips, Mike feels like a complete idiot.

But the friendly old man just stares for a moment in mild surprise. “The Malcolm? Good grief, son, don’t you got no internet? They’ve always said the Malcolm was one of the most haunted hotels in the whole dang country!”

“Ummm…. I don’t understand. What do you mean ‘was’?”

“I mean ‘was’! The place burned down six years ago, stood there pretty as a picture for a hundred and three years, then lightning hit the damned thing and burned it to the ground. Killed everybody in it.”

Friday, 10:04 pm

Mike reaches the interstate. His frazzled mind is insisting that the time on his watch isn’t right, can’t be right, but he’s just too tired to worry about it any more. He knows he’ll be back home in a short while, back in his studio in Nebraska, safe and sound. Well, safe anyhow. He probably won’t be feeling very ‘sound’ for a few days. But he thinks he’ll be OK. He reaches into his jacket pocket for a mint.

His hand falls upon cold metal. He draws the object from his pocket and nearly goes off the road as he stares in horror at what he’s holding. A small key dangles from a tarnished silver tab reading ‘Malcolm Hotel - Room 401.’

Mike pulls over and stares at the key. His first impulse is to throw it out, throw it as hard as he can into the darkness. Then he reconsiders… isn’t this proof of what’s happened? But no, Mike realizes it proves nothing. None of the incredible things he’s been through could ever be proven by the mere existence of an old tarnished key. It would never prove the truth to anyone but himself.

Still, that’s something. He drops the key back into his jacket pocket, fishes out a few mints, and makes his way home.

(This story was inspired by the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, where several of the supernatural events described in this story are said to have actually occurred.)