World Without End

The wind blew fallen leaves along the street. Grey, leaden clouds lay low in the sky. Phil walked along the row of terraced houses in the same direction as the leaves, travelling just as aimlessly. It was two p.m., the dead time of the afternoon when people had finished lunch but before the kids arrived home from school. The street he walked on was completely empty.

He reached a junction with the main road and saw there was a park on the opposite side. He might as well waste time in there rather than wandering the empty, depressing roads. Phil could see the local Council had recently tried to make improvements in the park; the railings were all freshly painted, the small tea-shop was actually open, the grass was freshly cut, and the beds and pond well-kept. He felt cheered at the sight. It would have been easy to let the park fall into disrepair and ruin.

Because it was mid-week and off season, there were only a few people in the park; a couple walked a dog, an old lady listlessly threw bread at a bored looking duck, and a barista in the tea-shop leaned on the counter with no customers to serve. A man in overalls worked on a flower-bed, clearing out dead flowers. None of them paid him any mind. He noticed a greenhouse on the other side of the small lake, and headed round to have a look.

He peered through the cloudy glass on the door and saw a magical world of green inside. A notice on the glass said it was closed on Wednesdays. It was Wednesday.

He walked round the building, looking for something else to do. He ended up in a part of the park which hadn’t been as well restored as the other areas. Overhung trees and bushes sprawled untidily over cracked and broken paths. The railings, such as they were, were rusty and damaged. The whole area had an atmosphere of dereliction and decay. He saw an old sign attached to one of the trees. It read ‘Maze’ in antique script. Underneath the words, an arrow pointed him further away from the main park. Phil decided to go for a look.

The path led him through oppressive bushes and trees for a few hundred yards, then ended in a wide grassy area with the maze set in the middle. It wasn’t a particularly big maze, no more than a hundred feet square, but it was tall; about eight feet high. It didn’t look as if it was well maintained; the hedge itself was ragged and unkempt, as was the grass surrounding it.

Phil walked up to the maze, and looked around. There was a small booth at the entrance but it was in a poor state of repair suffering from dry rot and peeling paint. Phil checked his watch, then decided to have a go at the maze. There was no particular reason, it just felt the right thing to do. He walked past the booth and was about to enter when he heard a small voice.

“A penny please, sir.”

Phil gave a visible start, he thought he was on his own. It took him a moment to source the voice and finally realized it had come from the booth. He looked toward it and saw there was a tiny old man sitting in the darkness of the wooden hut.

“A penny please, sir,” repeated the old man.

“Sorry, I didn’t see you there,” stammered Phil.

“That’s alright, sir. Don’t get many visitors down here. I was just taking a nap when I heard you passing me by.”

Phil smiled at what he thought was a joke.

“Don’t like people passing me by, sir. Ain’t right,” the old man said in a dour tone.

“Sorry.” Phil mumbled again. To ease the tension, Phil changed the subject, “I like the renovation they’ve done to the rest of the park.”

“Don’t know what you’re talking about. Nothing been done to this whole park nigh on twenty years, not since the Thirties. Alderman Smith did it, well leastways he organized it.”

The Thirties? Twenty years ago? More like eighty. But Phil didn’t bother to argue. The old guy had obviously lost his marbles. He reached inside his pocket and dug out a coin. A twenty pence piece, it was all he had. Phil handed it over.

“Keep the change.”

The old guy smiled. “Thank you, sir. Go right in.” he said motioning to the entrance of the maze.

Initially Phil enjoyed the sensation of getting lost. He tried to make the most of the experience, and intentionally wandered aimlessly. He twisted left and right without thinking, following the paths of the maze as he saw fit. After what he felt was about fifteen minutes he decided he was lost enough and would try to find his way out.

No matter which way he turned he was faced with the same scene; green hedges. The green was vibrant and almost dazzling; it struck a harsh contrast to the grey of the sky. He stopped and sighed, it had looked like a fairly mediocre effort from the outside, but he had to admit the maze had stumped him. Faced with no other choice, he started to walk once again.

The hedges were impenetrable; no light shone through them. He could see nothing but grey when he looked to the sky. To make matters worse it was beginning to get dark. Dark? It was only about three o’clock. He looked at his watch and realized with a jump it was half past five. How the hell did that happen? Time didn’t race when you were unemployed; it dragged. 

With no other choice, he kept up his pace, twisting and turning through the green walls that trapped him. Trapped? His subconscious had thrown the word into his mind; a word he would never have normally used. He didn’t feel trapped; it was only a bloody maze! Don’t you? a sly voice inside his head asked. He checked his watch. Seven o’clock. What? He shook his wrist, not believing his eyes. He looked up at the sky, saw only grey and the darkening of approaching night. He could still make out the hedges in front and beside him, and the ground was still visible, but he wondered how long that would last.

Something twitched at a locked door in his mind, something he tried to get rid of. Panic. He suddenly realized he was really lost, not like earlier when it had seemed merely a game. Why hadn’t the old man tried to find him before the park closed, had he forgotten or had he not cared?

Phil reached a junction – left or right? He went left. After what felt like only a few moments, he checked his watch again. It was nine-thirty. He was cold, hungry and tired. Surely there was a way out of the maze? He took a tissue from his pocket and shredded it into long, thin strips. He put all but one back in his pocket. He twisted the remaining piece round a small twig so its whiteness was visible in the night. He started to walk again, careful to count each step. When he reached fifty he tied another small twist of tissue into the hedge. Fifty steps; a twist. Fifty; twist. His plan was to eventually get back to the first twist so he would know he had covered that portion of the maze. Then, he would be able to find his way out. It was simply a matter of elimination.

He gave up on that idea when his watch read one a.m. and he still hadn’t come across any bits of tissue. He had run out of twists around eleven o’clock but had carried on in vain as he tried to find any sign of the twists he had lain. He couldn’t find one. Crumpling to the ground, he put his head in his hands and began to sob.

***

In a deserted and scruffy part of a forgotten park, in a small hut at the entrance of a neglected maze, an old man waits patiently for the next customer. While he does, he smiles because he is the only one who knows that sometimes, just sometimes, those who enter the maze never find their way back out.

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

Shadows

The blast stripped his skin away, charring the flesh underneath and turning his bones to dust. His eyelids were sealed by the heat, the fluid orbs boiling and bursting in their sockets. He felt a brief moment of pain, then nothing, as his limbs were ripped from his body, his guts torn open and his head shattered. After the explosion, there was nothing left except for a few misshapen lumps of gristle and burnt meat.

He woke. He was in the boiler room as usual. He stood, dusting himself down. He quickly realised the room had changed. There was a hole in the roof and the room was full of smoke and debris. The furnace was ripped open, sheared metal hanging from the frame. He looked down and saw the charred, rendered remains of his body. He remembered the explosion. He was dead.

He’d often thought about death, not morbidly, but in a detached way. What did it feel like, what did you see, experience? Now he could find out.

There were sirens in the distance, but they didn’t concern him. He was well past the point of being saved. No defibrillator was going to bring him back; they’d have to take his body out in a bucket.

He walked upstairs to the factory floor, amused to see the panic and fear on his colleagues’ faces. They had practised drills for this type of occurrence, but none of them seemed to remember. They ran for the doors in a panicked mob. No-one was checking for colleagues, no-one was counting heads, no-one was grabbing fire extinguishers. He laughed to see them, but reflected he would probably be doing the same. He wondered how long it would be before his absence was noticed, who would discover him, the memory of the sight no doubt being burned into their memory forever.

He walked out the factory, intrigued to find he wasn’t floating or drifting. His body felt as solid as always. Nobody noticed him, so it was clear he was invisible. He walked towards a stack of pallets with the intention of seeing if he could walk through objects. The bump on his nose suggested he couldn’t.

He wandered away from the site, keen to get home. He had a sense that his time was limited, and he wanted to see his family for the last time. He wanted to say goodbye.

His car wasn’t an option, so he decided to walk.

The factory was situated in the working-class part of town. It was a Victorian red-brick edifice, originally a flour mill, but converted into a small timber yard in the late 1970s. He walked down streets full of red brick terraced houses, originally built to house the flour mill workers and their families. The homes were modest, two-up and two-down, with a front door that opened straight onto the street and a small yard behind. An alleyway at the back allowed access to the yards.

As he walked down the quiet street he became aware of curtains being twitched in almost every house. Was he visible? Could they see his injuries? It didn’t take him long to realise he was being watched by the dead. Pale faces with sunken black eyes started at him from behind glass. These were the dead of past ages, condemned to the house where they died, condemned to move unseen amongst the living. He saw the sadness in their faces, the despair.

As he walked, getting closer to his home and family with every step, the world around him changed. The real world, the one he had occupied until twenty minutes ago, was starting to change, starting to become unfocused and misty. The figures in the houses were becoming more distinct, more solid, while the bricks and mortar became more and more transparent. His feet started to sink into the tarmac of the pavement. The world darkened. The street, the one that belonged to the real world, faded away. He realised the houses, the pavement, the entire mortal realm had passed from his view.

He found himself on a wide open plain, full of darkness and shadows. The dead were all around him.  Most were heading to an unseen point in the distance, some were simply wandering around, lost. He joined the throng, walking to the unknown destination.

An endless time later, travelling through this dark, shadowed land, he arrived at his destination. Standing there, with countless others, he looked across the river into the darkness. Boats arrived on the bank every few minutes, the dead boarded and the boats headed back out into the darkness. Some of his new companions shuffled around, unsure, but he knew he had to make a decision. To go across the river meant the end. He wouldn’t see his family again.  To stay on this side was to become a wraith, a spirit that haunted the mortal world, being able to see but not being seen. The sadness was overwhelming.

He stood on the river bank and made his decision. He remembered the misery and despair on the faces staring out at him from the houses in the street. He didn’t want to suffer that fate. Instead, he would move on. He stepped onto the next boat.

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

 

Skin Trade

It was rush hour. As they weaved through the throng of commuters Peter noticed a group of people standing near an intersection. He was reminded of a recent headline.

“I wonder where they all come from.”

“Who?” asked John.

Peter pointed. There were about ten of them, all clearly vagrants.

“Those guys. I saw an article that said the number of homeless people in the city had increased three-fold in the last two years. I was just wondering where they all come from.”

“No idea. I don’t think about them.”

“I’m going to contact Sarah at Channel 6, she might be interested in commissioning a piece.”

“What’s your angle?”

“What the city is doing to help. The article didn’t say.”

They carried on walking.

A week later Peter emerged after dinner wearing a coat. John glanced up from his laptop.

“Off out?”

“I’m going to a homeless shelter tonight. Channel 6 commissioned the story. I’ve done some background research and now I’m off to talk to the people who run the shelters.”

“Do you want me to come?”

“I’ll be fine.”

“Okay, but don’t forget your phone.”

Peter started with the largest of the city’s shelters, Harmony Hill. He asked the man at the reception if he could speak to a manager. After ten minutes a young woman arrived. She introduced herself as Susan, night supervisor. Peter explained his mission.

“Sounds like good exposure for us. Numbers are increasing to the point where we’re turning people away. If you could publicise this issue, it might drum up some interest. City hall doesn’t seem to care. Come back tomorrow night, I’ll have more time to talk.”

The next night, as Peter headed to Harmony Hill again, he noticed a truck parked on the street. It caught his attention because the tailgate was open and a man was addressing the homeless who had gathered around. The man pointed at various people, who climbed into the back of the truck. The man jumped down, closed the tailgate and drove off. Peter asked Susan if she knew anything about it.

“No, but I can guess. It’ll be some farmer or factory owner picking up cheap labour. We’ve heard reports of that happening.”

“That’s a dimension to being homeless I didn’t realise existed. I think I’ll investigate.”

Peter asked Susan if she could let him know when the truck appeared again. It was three weeks before she phoned.

“It arrived ten minutes ago. You better be quick; it’s half full already.”

Peter jumped into his car and sped to Harmony Hill. The truck was still there, but it was clearly about to leave. He decided to see where it was going.

The truck drove through the city, stopping at a scruffy industrial unit. Peter parked on the far side of the lot and walked over. The driver had backed the truck up to the loading dock. A tall, broad man and a smaller, younger man stepped out from the factory and opened the tailgate of the truck.

“You’ve got a long drive ahead of you, so we’ve prepared some food. Fill up before we head out again. Line up, we want to get your names before you eat.”

The driver joined the two men on the dock. The homeless men left the truck and stepped onto the loading dock. They were lined up before being beckoned inside. The dock was closed.

Peter pushed a nearby dumpster underneath a high window and climbed up. He could see into the factory. It was divided into three parts. The first area, where the homeless men were standing, was empty of furniture and equipment. There was a partition dividing this section from the next, a smaller room that contained a desk. The third area, much bigger than the other two, was a processing area. There were conveyors, chains hanging from the ceiling, long stainless steel benches and large plastic bins.

The driver addressed the line of men.

“We’re limited in space here, so I’ll ask you to go through this door one at a time. We’ll take your details, then you’ll be fed. It won’t take long.”

The broad man opened the door and gestured for the first man to enter. The door was closed. The homeless man was instructed to sign a form on the desk. As he bent to sign, the broad man reached into his pocket and brought out what looked like a gun. He placed it against the head of the vagrant. There was a soft pop and the man dropped like a stone. There was no blood. The broad man lifted the corpse and pulled it through to the processing area. He then returned to the office and instructed the second man to enter. The same process happened again and again, until there was no-one left.

The next stage of the operation started. The young man stripped each body. The broad man tied the feet together and hung them upside down on a hook. He sprayed them with a hose, then drew a knife across each throat, stepping back to avoid the gush of blood. Each abdomen was slit open and the intestines and organs pulled out. These were dumped into a nearby bin. The heads were then removed and thrown into a bucket. The slaughterman carefully removed the skin to leave a red, glistening slab of meat. He neatly folded each skin and placed it onto a trolley. The cadavers were then pushed towards a white door at the side of the room.

Peter tumbled off the dumpster and phoned the police.

“There’s murder taking place! Homeless people are being slaughtered. Send as many cars as possible.”

He gave his name and the address and hung up.

It took fifteen minutes for one solitary patrol car to turn up. A bored looking officer stepped out. Peter, standing next to the dumpster, beckoned him over.

“Where’s your backup? There’s at least three of them in there!”

“Sir, we aren’t going to dispatch multiple units without evidence. Now, can you please explain to me what you told the dispatcher?”

Peter gave an account of what he had witnessed. The officer couldn’t disguise a look of disbelief.

“All you have to do is kick down that door and you’ll see, officer!”

“Let’s start by talking to them.”

The officer knocked on the door, while Peter stood behind. The door was opened. It was man from the truck.

“Constable McCready. Good to see you.”

He glanced behind the police officer.

“And who do we have here? Ah yes. Mr. Peter Jones, freelance investigative reporter, currently working for Channel 6. I wondered when you’d turn up.”

The officer spoke.

“Mr. Jones must have followed you, Inspector. Thought you might want to deal with him yourself.”

“That’s very kind of you, Constable McCready. There’ll be something extra in your pay packet this month.”

“Thank you, much appreciated.”

Peter stared at the two policemen as the truth of the situation hit home, then passed out.

He wasn’t out for long. He woke to find the Inspector squatting and staring at him. They were in the processing area, the floor sticky with blood.

“So, now you know, Mr. Jones. It’s the city’s way of reducing the homeless population. They just kept coming and coming. Fighting, drinking and making the city look like shit. City hall doesn’t want to waste money on shelters and soup kitchens. The mayor asked us to come up with a solution and we have. The homeless have finally become of use.”

He glanced around the room.

“It’s all too easy. To them I’m Father Murdoch of the Souls Full of Hope Mission. They can come and work on our farm. We promise we’ll feed them and pray for them. They fall for it every time.”

He stood and stretched.

“I’m going to leave you now. Mac is a good slaughterman; he gets paid in the meat he produces. What he does with it is his business, not ours. The less we know the better.”

He nodded to the slaughterman and left. Peter felt the Mac’s legs straddle him. Mac pulled Peter’s hair, lifting his head.

“Just so you know. Meat goes to piggies. Piggies eat the meat. Piggies get fat and go to slaughter. But we don’t send the skin we collect, we keep the skin for something special. We make leather. Sell it to fancy stores in the city for shoes and handbags. Get more money that way.”

“Please, let me go.”

“You ain’t the first to come snooping. Inspector says to kill ‘em all, can’t risk it. Nothing personal, but no choice.”

The slaughterman glanced down, with an expression that was almost sympathy. He lifted his knife. Peter closed his eyes.

∼ RJ Meldrum

© Copyright RJ Meldrum. All Rights Reserved.

 

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.