by Ray O'Bannon
The road was getting slippery as darkness fell. The constant drizzle had left them anxious to find shelter, to get off this twisting mountain highway and rest. None of the tiny mining towns they passed had offered any sort of lodging, or even a place to eat. Just closed doors and dark windows. It was like driving through ghost towns, Joyce thought absently.
Then the diner came into view, neon signs casting colorful reflections in the wet pavement. Nearby, a hotel sign flashed it's harsh red message into the gathering night... Vacancy. They pulled off the highway, Mitch breathing a sigh of relief and saying something about hot coffee. Joyce smiled, glad the long day's drive was finally over.
After a warm meal and some surprisingly good homemade pie, they made their way to the hotel. The building stood shrouded in darkness, but it's outline suggested a very large and very old structure. The front entrance, however, was brightly lit and of relatively modern design. They stepped inside, the glass doors hissing closed behind them, as the girl at the front desk glanced up with a grin.
“Looks a little wet out there” she chuckled as they signed in. “Good thing you got here when you did, I hear it's gonna get lots worse before morning.”
She handed them their room key. Rather than a plastic card, it was an actual metal key. For some reason, it seemed to remind Joyce of some forgotten childhood memory, of keys only grown ups were supposed to have, keys worn smooth with age, guarding secrets and mysteries unimaginable.
She shook her head. Must be getting sleepy, time to find their room. They walked through a short hallway into the building's main lobby and that's when everything seemed to change.
The sensation was subtle but undeniable. The room felt wrong somehow.
Maybe it was just the outdated decor... the worn carpet with it's faded orange and brown swirls, the heavy drapes and the bulky leather sofa and chairs. Or the way the lights seemed to flicker in their heavy wrought iron fixtures, faint shadows dancing in the corners of the large empty room.
It felt as though time had stopped. As though it had stood still for ages, here in this place. Stood still and rotted. There was a dampness here, a deadness.
One wall featured a large modern television, tuned to a Simpsons cartoon marathon. The bright cheerful images looked so out of place in this dismal chamber, so discordant... Joyce almost felt the lobby was toying with them, laughing silently at their presence.
Joyce glanced at Mitch, wondering if he was experiencing any similar apprehension. He loved horror films and ghost stories, so she was surprised he wasn't making any jokes about this place. Instead, his tired expression seemed to betray a trace of tension as they crossed the lobby.
Reaching the top of the stairs, they found a dim narrow hallway leading to their room. It was here that Mitch stopped for a moment.
“Hey, ummm... this might sound kinda weird but... does this place seem strange to you?” His voice was light, as though joking, but Joyce could sense an undertone of uncertainty in the statement.
“Oh, don't you start with that stuff. I'm too tired to get all creeped out” she grumbled, giving him a playful scowl as they walked down the hallway. When they reached their room, Joyce said a little prayer to herself as Mitch unlocked the door. 'Please', she thought, 'at least let this room feel normal'. But of course, it didn't.
Although only on the second floor, a low slanted ceiling made the room feel claustrophobic, like an attic space. The small rain-speckled window provided no view except the dark blank windows of the building's opposite wing, as though the hotel were twisting around to prevent anyone from seeing beyond it.
Mitch sat their luggage by a small wooden table and began making coffee. They tried to focus on a TV show, but soon decided they were too tired. Sitting on the corner of the bed to undress, Mitch suddenly stopped and glanced at Joyce.
“This corner over here, the empty one... does it feel strange to you or is it just me?”
“The corner? Of course not. What are you talking about?”
“I'm not sure, really. This corner just feels a little... odd somehow.”
“Oh shut up” laughed Joyce, hitting Mitch with a pillow. But as she began drifting off to sleep, she found herself wanting to glance over into the corner of the room. 'Just quit it', she told herself, 'there's nothing in the stupid corner.' And after an uncertain while, she slept.