The Night Before

They were parked on Main Street.  Williams seemed nervous, unusual for such a seasoned officer.

“What’s up?” asked Thompson.

The older man glanced at him.

“I hate this night.”

“Christmas Eve?”

“Yup.  I do my best to avoid this shift.  Every cop in town does.”

“I guess you want to be home with the kids.”

“No, it’s not that.  Tell me, have you noticed how quiet the town is?”

“Yes, it’s weird.  I expected it to be buzzing.”

“It’s been like this every year for twenty years.”

“Why?”

“I’ll tell you.  You have a right to know.”

Williams took a sip of coffee.

“It happened on Christmas Eve, 1996.  I’d been here for about six months.  The bars in town were full and the streets were busy.  I was on patrol with John Williams.  We got the call.  Crash on the main road heading into town.  It was a mess.  A car had t-boned a pick-up, forcing the truck into the ditch.  The driver of the car was a young man; he was sitting on the verge when we arrived.  The driver of the pick-up was trapped in his vehicle.  We saw straight away that it was Peter Ellis.  Every cop in town knew Ellis; he wasn’t a bad man, just a bit rough.  Eccentric.  Angry.  He lived by himself in a shack up in the hills, came down into town once in a while for supplies.  Drove a ratty old pick-up, rusty as hell.  The muffler was shot and you could hear him coming a mile away.  I could smell smoke.  Before we could do anything, the pick-up erupted in flames.  The heat was too intense, we couldn’t get close.  Our extinguishers made no impact and the fire department was still five minutes out.  By the time they arrived, the fire was raging.  Ellis was dead.  I can still see him, sitting in the driver’s seat as the flames consumed him.”

“Horrible.”

“We charged the kid with DUI.  His name was James Peterson.  Local guy, son of a teacher.  He went to jail for six months.  Lost his license.”

“Is that why you hate this shift?  Because of that crash?”

Williams ignored the question.

“I was assigned the same shift the year after.  I was sitting in this very spot.  There was a knock on my window.  It was Peterson, the kid that’d caused the crash.  He was sober and wanted to apologize.  We shook hands and he walked down main street.  It was then I heard it.  The noise was so unique.  It was Ellis’s truck.”

“But…”

“I know, but I heard it.  Everyone else on Main Street did too.  I stepped out the car and stood in the snow, waiting.  Ellis’s truck turned the corner of Fifth and Main and headed slowly down the street.  As it passed me I made eye contact with the driver.  Is was Peter Ellis himself.  He looked the same as the night he died; burnt up, with his skin mostly gone.  For a second I thought I’d lost my mind.”

“Very funny.”

“No joke.  Peterson glanced back and saw it.  I think he knew what was about to happen, he started to run.  Ellis must have spotted him because he gunned the engine and sped up.  The truck mounted the sidewalk.  James didn’t have a chance, he was hit and went under.   Ellis’s truck turned the corner on Seventh Street and disappeared.  No trace was ever found.”

“But Ellis was dead.”

“Yup.  I told you, he was an angry man.  Maybe he couldn’t rest, knowing the kid who’d killed him was free to live the rest of his life, so he came back to set things straight.  But Peterson’s death wasn’t enough for him.”

“What do you mean?”

“Every year on this night, Ellis comes back, seeking vengeance.  His truck drives up and down Main Street, looking for his next victim.  The first year after Peterson was killed, Ellis killed four.  Since then the town has been deserted every Christmas Eve.  No-one dare leave their houses, no-one except us.”

“Great tale, you should be a writer.  I need a cigarette.”

“I wouldn’t leave the car.  Can’t you hear it?”

Thompson heard a faint noise in the distance.

“Just a car back-firing.”

Thompson shook his head.

“It’s Ellis.”

“Crap!”

Thompson opened the door, feeling the rush of cold air.  He stepped out, reaching for his cigarettes.  He was the newest addition to the town’s police force and expected a certain amount of leg-pulling, but he didn’t see why he should listen to such bullshit.  The vehicle noise got louder, the engine farting and blowing.  A vehicle turned the corner onto Main Street, heading towards him.  Thompson couldn’t see what it was, the headlights were on full beam.  It wasn’t until it drew next to him that he saw it was an ancient pick-up.  He glanced at the driver and saw a vision of hell.  The driver was hideously burnt, the skin and hair almost totally gone.  It grinned insanely at him.  Dropping his cigarettes, all reason gone, Thompson started to run, ignoring the shout of alarm from within the patrol car.  The last sound he heard was an engine roaring behind him.

∼ R.J. Meldrum

© Copyright R.J. Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

Dare

It was simple, if they wanted to join the sorority they had to complete a dare. The most popular girls got the easy ones; kiss a nerd, steal a chalk duster from a lecture theater. The girls on the bottom of the pledge list got the hard ones. Sarah, dead last in popularity with her potential sorority sisters, got the hardest. But she was determined to start her college life as a member of the most popular sorority, so she willingly accepted the challenge.

She had to take a selfie in the Murder House.

The Adams House was its official name, but to the students and faculty, it’d always been the Murder House. After all, it was where Professor Adams killed his family before turning the gun on himself. It happened in 1972. Afterwards, anyone who moved in didn’t stay long and every one of them told the same story. It was haunted by the ghosts of the dead family. In 1989 the university sealed up the house and left it to rot.

Sarah decided to go in the daytime. Logic supposed the ghosts would only be active after dark. The house was surrounded by a metal fence, topped with vicious looking spikes. Sarah opened the gate and walked up the path to the house. The windows and doors were covered with wood panels, but the wood used to block the front door was rotted and loose. She pushed through and was surprised to find the front door ajar.

She stood in the hall, looking around. Through open doorways she could see empty rooms to her left and right. In front was a curved, open staircase. She’d been told she had to take the photograph in the upstairs bedroom, where the murders had taken place.

She stepped forward and placed her foot on the first stair. With an explosion of noise, the front door slammed shut. She screamed. The two open doorways on the first floor banged shut as well. She ran up the stairs, with the sound of slamming doors echoing through the house. As she reached the top, all doors were closed except one. She had no choice, she had to escape.

The room she entered was as empty as the others. French doors led out onto a balcony. The door slammed behind her. There was only one way out. She opened the french doors and stepped onto the balcony. The doors closed behind her. She glanced over the low railing of the balcony to the garden. The railing that surrounded the house was directly below. She could see spikes pointing upwards. She’d have to be careful, but it was just possible she could drop from the balcony without hitting the railing. It was the only option, she wasn’t going to go back into that house; the legends were true, the place was haunted.

She stepped over the railing, grabbed hold of the metal and started to lower herself. She maneuvered into position, her feet dangling in midair, her grip on the metal railing holding her entire weight. She quickly realized her plan wouldn’t work; if she dropped, she’d hit the spikes. She’d have to climb back onto the balcony, but she found she couldn’t do it. Her feet could find no purchase and she wasn’t strong enough to pull herself back up using her arms alone. She was stuck.

She screamed, her throat raw and burning. She could see figures running along the road. A huge sense of relief swept over her; she was saved. She no longer minded the pain in her shoulder and arm muscles. She could grip the balcony railing for as long as it took for someone to prop a ladder under her. It was then she felt it, a soft fluttering sensation on her hands, as if a butterfly had landed on her skin. Slowly, one-by-one, she felt her fingers being lifted from the rail. Below her the spikes glinted in the sunlight. Just before she fell, she heard the sweet laughter of a child.

∼ R.J. Meldrum

© Copyright 2019 R.J. Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

 

Waiver

Matt parked the car near the front entrance.

“Well, we’re here.”

Chelsea nodded.

“The famous haunted hotel.”

“Yup, the fake haunted hotel. A fraud about to be exposed.”

“Are you sure about this? You could be destroying peoples’ livelihoods.”

“Won’t be the first time.”

He spoke with a sense of pride.

They headed into the reception and were greeted by a young woman. She confirmed their booking. After she’d taken Matt’s credit card details, she reached below the desk and placed a piece of paper in front of them. This was the famous waiver. It wasn’t terribly impressive. Aside from the gothic header, which added a certain flair, Matt saw it was nothing more than just standard liability boiler-plate. Guests could not hold the hotel responsible for any harm that befell them. Guests had to verify they weren’t suffering from heart disease, high blood pressure or a shopping list of other ailments. Blah, blah, blah.

The receptionist was making a show of getting them to read and sign it. This was the first part of the ‘experience’ promised by the hotel’s owners.

“So, is it true then?” asked Chelsea.

“Oh yes. The Charlotte Springs Hotel is the most haunted hotel in the U.S. That’s been verified. We introduced the waiver five years ago when an elderly gentleman suffered a heart attack after seeing a supernatural vision. He tried to sue us.”

“That’s why we’ve come to stay.”

“We’ve had visitors from as far away as Australia.”

“Do you think we’ll see some ghosts?”

“I hope you won’t be disappointed. The dearly departed don’t come every night, but you might be lucky.”

“Well, I wasn’t expecting a guarantee, but it would be nice if they appeared.”

Matt signed the waiver, then passed it to Chelsea who signed. They weren’t a couple, but they pretended to be. It made things easier.

“Your room is number five. The Blue Room. It’s one of the hotspots; lots of guests have had sleepless nights in that room. Lots of sightings.”

Matt picked up the key. It was an old-fashioned iron key; there were no swipe cards in this century-old house, it wouldn’t have suited the ambience. They climbed the creaking wooden stairs to the first floor. The décor was faded, with some of the wallpaper peeling away. The whole place felt worn and unloved. Perhaps this was deliberate, the public didn’t expect to see ghosts in well-maintained, modern establishments.

The Blue Room was actually blue. Pale blue wallpaper, royal blue bedding and a baby blue carpet. It was hideous.

“A bit overdone on the theme,” said Chelsea.

“I think everything is overdone here.”

“I guess they have to make money somehow.”

“Not for much longer.”

The room overlooked the front of the hotel. Matt glanced out the window. It wasn’t as if the town was horrible or rundown. It was just an ordinary small town in an area not renowned for tourist attractions. The hotel was the only place worth visiting. Although Matt considered it a scam, it was clear that a lot of people didn’t. They came to speak to the dead, to find proof of the afterlife or simply for the thrill. They came, spent their money and left.

He fired up his laptop.

“At least they have free Wi-Fi.”

He loaded some bookmarked pages. He read some of the reviews out loud.

“The Charlotte Springs Hotel. So haunted they make you sign a waiver before you can stay. So terrifying you must be crazy to sleep over. A night of creepy noises and supernatural visions. A must-see attraction for anyone interested in the afterlife. Nonsense, all of it.”

“Well, we are here to debunk it.”

“And we will.”

He loaded the hotel’s website.

“Okay, so according to this, there are six rooms. Each room has its own ghost. Very neat, who would have thought the dead were so organized. For example, the White Room has the woman in white. The Red Room has the headless soldier. The Green Room doesn’t have a ghost as such, but apparently guests can look forward to a night of supernatural sobbing and wailing. I won’t recite the whole dreary list, you get the idea.”

“And the Blue Room?”

“The ghost of a child. Reports speak of a small figure, toys moving across the floor. All super-easy to fake.”

“What do you want to do first?”

“Nothing yet. The phenomena only ever appear after dark.”

He checked his watch.

“Three hours to kill. Might as well get some food.”

The hotel restaurant was busy. It was late August, the height of the tourist season. Labor Day would see the number of guests decline. Matt and Chelsea had timed their visit carefully. Matt’s theory was the ‘ghosts’ were more likely to appear when the hotel was full.

Matt glanced around the dining room. Some were normal tourists, but the majority clearly had a spiritual leaning. After ten years of debunking the paranormal he could easily recognize them. These were the people who believed without question in the afterlife, spending their lives crouched over Ouija boards, attending séances and attempting automatic writing.

“I feel sorry for them.”

“Who?”

“The ones who believe. The ones who claim to have found the truth about the afterlife.”

“They seem happy enough.”

“They’re deluded. In all my years of investigating supernatural occurrences, I’m yet to find a single genuine example.”

“What about this hotel? You’re convinced it’s fake. What if it’s not?”

“There’s no life after death.”

“You seem so sure.”

“After ten years investigating, I am.”

“How you do think they do it?”

“Smoke and mirrors. Hidden microphones. Nothing unique.”

“Why do you think they’ve got such a reputation, with such cheap tricks?”

“A proprietor who is a good showman. Look at the waiver, that builds expectations before the guests even get to the room.”

“We’re being manipulated?”

“I’d say so. Guests arrive expecting to see a ghost. They’re told there are ghosts in every room and are made to sign a waiver, implying the visions are so terrifying they might die. That sets up a high probability the guests will see what they want to see. A dummy dressed in a white dress and wig suddenly becomes the ghost of woman abandoned on her wedding night. It’s clever what they’ve done here; I’m guessing it’s twenty percent props and eighty percent the power of suggestion.”

He checked his watch.

“Time to retire. It’ll be dark soon.”

They lay in bed listening to the sounds of the hotel as the guests settled for the night. No doubt some would be having all-night vigils with incense and sage burning. Others, no doubt, had gone to bed, full of trepidation and excitement. Matt, tired after a long drive, fell asleep almost immediately.

He woke when Chelsea grabbed his arm under the blankets. He checked his watch. Two a.m. She was staring at the corner of the room. He looked into the darkness, unable to see anything but shadows. He switched on the bedside light. The figure standing in the corner was so obviously fake Matt had to stifle a laugh. It was the classic kid’s version of a ghost; a figure covered by a sheet with cut-out eyeholes. Matt rolled out of bed.

“I was right, look at that. If we were believers, we would see a terrifying vision of a dead child and not just someone with a sheet over their head.”

A toy car trundled across the wooden floor.

“Radio-controlled.”

He walked over to the figure. It didn’t move. There was a sudden tension in the room.

“Don’t, Matt. It feels wrong.”

Matt ignored her and instead spoke to the figure.

“You’re joking, aren’t you? Is this what I signed the waiver for? Is this what we drove six hours for? Wait until I publish my article. The first sentence will include your name.”

The figure didn’t move. Matt bent forward and stared into the eye holes.

“Well, who do we have here?”

He whipped the sheet away. Underneath there was nothing except a deep, fluid inky blackness. A darkness that almost had the shape of a person. Matt felt coldness emanating from the figure. He stared into the face of the ghost. It giggled, the high sweet laugh of a child. Reality hit Matt, it was real; it had always been real. He felt a crushing pain in his chest and fell to the carpet. The dark shape moved towards Chelsea. Matt’s last coherent thought was that he wished he hadn’t signed the waiver.

 

∼ R.J. Meldrum

© Copyright R.J. Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.