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I was in a rush when I'd booked the reservation. The hotel I'd wanted to stay at, the one I was used to, had been overbooked for a custom car show that was going on and that left me out of luck. No amount of grumbling and growling into the phone could convince them my years of patronage were worth the effort of pulling a few harmless strings.
So, after a brief and aggravating visit to a website I didn't fully get the hang of, I was left with a room at the "Stay Inn". The listing had given no real information on the place, other than to say it was "A rustic spot on the outskirts of the city" with "VHS players in every room".
Looking at the place gave no more sense of what I was in for. The wooden facade was made to resemble a log cabin, though I presumed the structure beneath was nothing more than the standard fare. The rooms were lined up in one long, regimented row that seemed to trail off into the pitch black forest that surrounded the place. Behind the trees, I could hear the forlorn call of owls and the incessant insect-like humming of what seemed to be a Biblical horde.
"Good evening, sir!" the cheery female clerk behind the desk greeted me as a bell above the door signaled my arrival, "Do you have a reservation?"
The lobby, or whatever you would call that closet-like space, was adorned with the mounted heads of several deer. The owner of this place had indeed been quite keen on the rustic decor. Shelves displayed black and white photographs of lumberjacks, fishermen, and hunters posing with each living thing they had felled.
"Yes, uh, reservation for Cal White?" The statement had come out as a question, and as soon as it left my lips I knew the back-water heap of an Inn was already causing me discomfort.
"Let's see..." the clerk dug through a thick book of mismatched papers until she found something of note, pointing to it with one sharp finger, "Here you are! Room 9."
I should note that the check-in girl was not hard to look at. She was on the short side, wearing a cute red bob that accented the heart shape of her face. Her smile could've used a bit of work in terms of aligning some stray teeth... Then again, perhaps that off-center grin did something for her.
She wore a cherry red tie over a pink dress shirt with sleeves rolled up at the wrists. Under the desk, I could see just up to her bare calves. The heels she wore were also bright red, though I couldn't fathom how tiny she must've been without them.
After exchanging information and pleasantries, I took the key from her. It was attached to a comically large wooden "9". It appeared as if a Cub Scout had adorned its surface with swirling patterns using his wood-burning kit.
"Oh! One more thing," she called after me as I was halfway out the door, "We have a curfew. After midnight, you need to stay in bed."
I laughed, nodded, and waved a goodbye. I couldn't have cared less about some ridiculous and arbitrary rule, but figured I'd have no reason to be up that late, anyway. I'd be in the city early tomorrow morning.
The room was everything I had expected. Cramped, windowless, musty, and slightly damp. Nothing was specifically wet, and yet when I touched the walls I felt as if there was the slightest sensation of moisture on my fingertips. Similarly, the blanket and sheets felt as if I could ring the slightest drops of water out of them if I tried hard enough.
I had wondered if the promise of a "VHS player in every room" would be fulfilled,. To my surprise one resided on top of the dresser, next to the outdated cinderblock of a television. The bent antenna and no visible cable connection didn't bode well, and I turned the damned thing on only to receive static and white noise.
The din of the static was deafening, at first. The last resident, or at least the last person to try the TV, had left the volume at its maximum setting. All at once I was assaulted by the ear-splitting hiss.
As I spun the volume knob downward, my face mere inches from the screen, I caught sight of movement within the snow.
It wasn't like the random, frantic motion of the static. The small, strange blob of discoloration within the mess was moving in a fluid, constant manner. The amorphous color spot grew slowly in size, and soon it appeared to be the outline of a man... of a person, at least... walking slowly toward me.
Convinced this was nothing more than my mind trying to make sense of the senseless imagery, I backed away from the set and focused hard. The static man kept walking toward me, nothing more than a dark discoloration of the endlessly stirring visual catastrophe.
It drew closer... closer... until a face nearly filled the screen. I call this a face, but really all I could make out was a slight shine in what would be the eyes and the slightest hint of a mouth.
The face drew back as if looking at me down its nonexistent nose, then the head tilted to one side. As I quickly and silently moved to turn off the set, the static man dodged downward and to one side. All at once, he was gone.
After turning off the set, I unplugged it from the wall. Knowing, logically, that this was nothing more than a mental misreading of the non-picture, I still felt the need to turn the set facing the wall.
Feeling now as if the entire room were to be somehow feared, I dressed for sleep and buried myself in the bed. I figured my imagination was not done playing tricks on me as I could've sworn I felt the fleeting touch and tickle of cockroaches moving against my bare skin beneath the blanket.
As I twitched, turned, and repeatedly studied my bedding I could consider it nothing more than the phantom itches one experiences when made to feel uncomfortable.
I fell asleep quickly, or at least I suppose I did, and it wasn't until exactly midnight that I was cruelly jarred out of my slumber.
A slight sound... barely a sound at all... caused my eyes to flash open as if I'd been awake all along. I couldn't place the sound, though it struck me as sort of a wet, sick groan. In the seconds that followed, I decided that it must have been some quirk in the pipes. If they still had VCRs, then what I couldn't see must've been positively ancient.
The sound came again, stifled by the walls of my disheveled tomb.
Cursing the noise and cursing the hour, I turned and exited the warm bed. The chill in the air hadn't struck me until I left the relative comfort of my resting place.
"Is someone there?" I called to the front door, careful to keep my voice low enough to avoid waking others.
My bare feet seemed to squish against the slick carpet as I moved to the door, arms wrapped around myself for heat.
"Hello?" I leaned in and brought my eye level with the peep hole.
Beyond the door, an old flood light suspended from a wooden beam illuminated the parking lot. Weeds that had seemed merely unsightly in the early hours of the night now cast long, tendril-like shadows that swept the pavement as a frigid breeze blew.
Beneath the wooden beam, swaying slightly as if going along with the overgrowth, was a young woman. Her hair was jet black, and she wore a sheer nightgown through which the light exposed all that was meant to be hidden. The young woman clasped herself in much the same manner I was, and I figured she must have been utterly frozen out there.
Though her back was turned to the door, I could see by her pale skin that she was in trouble. Thinking quickly, I threw on my shoes and removed my robe, which would soon be wrapped around the girl I was about to save from exposure.
I moved to the door again, gripping the knob. I had given it a half-turn when I once again peered through the peep hole.
No longer did I see the young woman. I didn't even see the parking lot. All I could see was a span of bright red.
Finding this a bit odd, I released the knob and searched the image for any sign of an explanation. Had someone heard me calling? Had they hung something on the door to block my view?
The door shook as something struck it. Immediately I had the notion that two fists had been rammed against its surface. The sudden and unexpected violence caused me to stumble back. I landed on the bed before I'd even realized I was crossing the room.
All was silent once again as I watched the peep hole from afar. A small, dim beam of light emerged from that opening, telling me that whatever had been blocking the view had now been removed.
Throwing the robe back around my shoulders, I moved to the door again. Seeing nothing out of the ordinary now beyond that pin-point opening, I threw the door open and searched the surrounding area for any sign of the young woman.
"Mr. White!" The girl behind the counter seemed aghast as I barged into the lobby, still garbed in my night-time attire. "I told you about the curfew!"
"What?" I cautiously searched the room for any sign that someone else had passed through recently, "I don't care about that. Listen, someone was outside my room just now. It was a girl. She looked like she was about to die, and when I looked again, someone was blocking my view."
"Mr. White, please..." the clerk begged, "You have to go back to your room, and please, PLEASE stay in bed!"
"No," I rushed to the desk and planted my palms down on it, "Come on, we have to see if she's okay. This is your responsibility."
"I can't leave my station, Mr. White." She shook her head, brow furrowed. It was if I'd just made some piggish advance on her.
I grasped the woman's wrist, intent on forcing her to follow.
"Mr. White!" She managed to wrest herself away from me as I could see her outrage building. "I cannot and will not leave this desk!"
"Fine," I threw my hands in the air, exasperated, "Do nothing. I'm going to find out what in the hell is going on!"
I made my way to the door again, and once more the she called after me.
"You can't do that. I mean, you shouldn't."
Silently, I let the door close as I fixed a hard gaze on her.
"See... the curfew isn't OUR doing. It's just... you shouldn't go out around midnight. We have some... extra guests."
"Oh?" I raised a brow, "How do you mean?"
"There was a murder here several years ago. A girl was killed and dumped into the lake just beyond the trees. Sometimes she comes around in the middle of the night, in particular, at midnight, like she's trying to find the family she was staying with. She must think anyone she sees is the person she's looking for... she'll drag you back to that lake with her."
I let out a disbelieving chuckle, one which was ignored as she continued on.
"You probably saw the poor thing. She's pale, like a ghost. Her face is mangled and torn apart..."
I turned once more to leave, feeling there was a good chance I was the butt of some sort of joke. Then, her words caused me to freeze in my tracks.
"She was left with only one swollen, blood-filled eye."
"You're full of shit." I walked halfway to the desk and stopped, "What is this, some sort of murder mystery hotel? A paranormal experience fun-night? Your web listing really should've mentioned."
"See for yourself." The clerk gestured to the shelf, to the photos that resided there.
Regarding the strange woman with a sideways glance, I went to the shelf and pulled down one of the pictures. It showed a hunter posted with the corpse of a large buck.
"What? Did the deer do it?" I snapped.
Before the clerk could respond, I spotted an abnormality. I could see type-written words barely visible on the photo, reversed as if the other side carried the message. Less than carefully, I separated the frame and snatched out the picture.
The photo had been clipped from a newspaper, and was of no real importance. The article attached to it was the actual memento.
"FOURTH MURDER AT LOCAL MOTEL"
The headline gave me a start. The words that followed did nothing to settle my nerves. The further I read into the article, the less I was sure of my skepticism.
"Community leaders are at a loss to explain the yearly killings that are taking place at the Stay Inn on Elk Road in a rural area around the Nevada/Arizona border, about twenty (20) miles south of Las Vegas. Police have no comment at this time, though they admit to believing the four killings are in some way related."
I looked to the other photos, then back to the clerk.
"Yes," she said quietly, anticipating my question, "They're all clippings. There were ten murders over a period of a decade... all young women, massacred and hidden somewhere in the area."
"Their faces..." I started, finding no words to complete the thought.
"No," she shook her head sadly as I set the clipping and its frame back on the shelf, "No, not all of them. Gault strangled one of them with her pantyhose... another girl he... he cut her into pieces."
"Yes, Victor Gault. The police killed him in a shoot-out just outside. He had holes drilled in the walls so he could look for victims. It's why we can't keep the weather out."
"Well surely you can just patch that up... unless... he keeps making them?"
The clerk swallowed hard and nodded. "He does."
She drew a heavy breath and sighed. For the briefest moment, I caught her checking the doorway as if she was expecting Gault to respond to his name being spoken.
"It's funny," she added with a bitter smile, "They never realized there was always a murder days after Gault was called to fix a television."
I slept in my car for the rest of that night. I gathered my things and drove into the city before I let myself fall asleep. I'm sure anyone who passed by thought I was crazy, but by that point I felt safer amid the hobos and drug dealers than I did at the Stay Inn.
It wasn't just because of the red-eyed girl, or even the presence that had reverse-viewed me through the TV screen. Granted, they were no small part of my decision to leave... However, the final straw was a detail the clerk had told me, and what I noticed soon after.
"Another girl," she said, "He cut her into pieces."
It wasn't until I thought it over that I realized what was wrong.
It was her high heels, and the bare calves I could see just above.
They were slightly off to her side.