This story originally appeared in The Palmer Hotel's annual release under the name "Room 301"
You took the room because you had been divorced. You needed to move to another place so you wouldn’t have to watch your ex-wife and children with that man. It had been a year since it was all final but you still tripped up and called her your wife and you hated it. You asked your job to transfer you, instead they laid you off, but the rejection felt the same as being fired. After that final straw, there was nothing to do but leave, and leave you did, on a windswept Monday in the last week of October. The configuration of that particular dark zodiac was how you found yourself in an old residential hotel, reluctantly charting a new destiny for yourself.
There was something wrong with the room to begin with. You tried not to think too much of it, instead you praised its benefits: low weekly rates and reasonable size. But even as you extolled its limited virtues, something wasn’t as it should be. It was almost like the edges of the room were blurred and shaking. You told yourself it was nothing, you were tired. With that you laid it to rest in your mind.
You unpacked your limited belongings: a suit, a thick sheaf of resumes, a pair of nice shoes. You went down the creaking elevator and to get the paper from the front desk and snapped it open to the “Help Wanted” section. You hunched over and put your pen to the newsprint and began to mark prospects -- you needed a new life, you had no time to wait.
“What are you doing?” croaked the withered man behind the front desk.
“I’m just job hunting,” you replied, smiling tentatively.
“You can’t mark up that paper! Other guests might want to read it and don’t want to see your markings!” You were stunned at both the venom and that he didn’t appear to move his lips.
“But it’s 9:00 at night,” you replied dumbly.
“Still today’s news though! You can buy a copy for a quarter!” he shot back.
Shakily, you fished a quarter from your back pocket and paid, retreating hastily upstairs. As the jaws of the elevator shut around you, the old man said to no one, “Inconsiderate guests think they own everything.”
You felt weird as the key turned and the door sighed opened. Inside it was too cold and too quiet. You perched on the end of the bed and resumed your task of circling your future. The pen pierced the paper and you fumbled. With a sigh you rubbed your eyes. You were tired in the ways people who leave their home forever can only know. You woke up once in the middle of the night to the sound of someone breathing, but no one was there. You told yourself it was a dream.
Just as quickly as you closed your eyes, it was Tuesday. You were ready to take on the world. You stood in the hall, locking the door behind you, when you realized that the phone number printed on your resumes were no longer relevant. It called her house. You hadn’t had to look for a new job since then. You were about to cry at this seemingly impossible hurdle when a solution struck. You could ask them to call the front desk, explain to them that you were new in town and had yet to secure a phone line. It seemed like a perfect plan. But then you remembered that strange old man. You steeled yourself. You needed to do this.
“Excuse me,” you said with a timbre in your voice that betrayed how you really felt.
“Yes?” rasped the mean-faced man.
“I was wondering, I don’t have a phone yet, and I am applying for jobs. May I tell them to call here and you can forward me the messages?” you said in a rush of breath, “I’ll pay you.”
The old man frowned the whole time you gushed out your request out, but his lips curled into a tight little smile when you brought up payment.
“I’ll take messages for you. Five dollars a day.”
You stepped outside, the sky was a shocking Carolina-blue and the sharp chill in the air brought the blood to your cheeks. You let loose a white puff of breath that you hadn’t even realized you were holding. You watched it dissipate into the ether. You smiled to yourself.
You looked at the paper and the map you had drawn for yourself. You had lost so much hope in those 365 odd days before this moment, but you began to feel something start to burn in you again. You let yourself start dreaming of a new life. You let your feet carry you to the recruiter’s office located two blocks from where you were staying. You handed your resume to the receptionist and was seen immediately. A recruiter shook your hand and talked to you enthusiastically. When were you available? How soon could you start interviewing? How much did you want to make? What did you want to do?
Now. Enough to live on and provide for my kids. Anything, I can do anything.
He smiled at you and shook your hand and said “Son, you’re going to be just fine. I’ll check your references out and get you out on some interviews by Wednesday.”
Your confidence carried you from one prospect to the next: auto dealers, offices, construction companies, and retail stores. You were tireless that day. You dropped off your resumes and interviewed all day. You were on fire. You received offers of working-interviews, call backs, second interviews. You gave your number at the hotel and explained that they could leave a message for you and you would respond immediately.
You didn’t realize you were hungry until early evening. You stopped into a reasonable looking diner. When you ordered you asked your waiter if you could buy a newspaper along with your dinner. He laughed and told you it was old news already, you could have it for free. He brought it to you and you resumed your hunched stance, pen in hand. When your food came, you put down the “Help Wanted” section and rewarded yourself with the funny pages. You let your mind swim with the potential of your future. You finished your dinner and went back to the hotel. You asked the old man if there had been any calls for you and he said no. You went up to your room, took a shower, and settled into bed.
At around midnight you were jolted out of sleep; you could hear children’s voices. They sounded like your children. They were coming from the bathroom. You sat up with a start and listened closely in the dark. The voices continued, though the words were inaudible, their cadence was undeniably familiar. Unnerved, you turned on the bedside lamp and softly crept towards the bathroom, throwing the door open. No one was there. You searched everywhere. Perhaps there were children staying in the room next to you? You couldn’t recall seeing any kids staying there.
You shook your head. You were lonely for your children, for your old life. It was making you hear things. You turned off the light in the bathroom, you left the door open. As you got into bed you noticed that the edges of the floor looked odd, almost blurry. It looked like dirty water, seeping out onto the floor. You shook your head, and said to no one, “I’m losing my mind.” You got back in bed and took a long time falling into an uneasy sleep.
You awoke later than you intended, you didn’t sleep well. You had weird dreams. As you stood in front of the mirror and splashed water on your face, you remembered the children’s voices. You resolved to look for an inexpensive studio that day as well. Something didn’t feel right and you were going to do something about it.
The day went much like the one before. Again, when you left the hotel, and as its dark silhouette was absorbed behind you, you looked around taking in your new city, your new home. You went to the diner where you had eaten dinner the night before and pulled out the newspaper, red rings lassoing the jobs you would search out today. While you drank your coffee and waited for your eggs and toast you turned to the housing section of the want ads and began to look at what options were out there for you. You didn’t have a job yet, but you did have a fair amount saved. Based on the responses you had received you felt confident that you could move into a small place. You told yourself that while it wouldn’t have room for your kids to stay with you, but it would be only temporary. You gazed out the window, lost in your thoughts of how you were going to navigate the day when across the street you saw him. The old man from the hotel staring at you, his lips stretched widely over his white, white teeth in a chilling smile. You felt electricity shoot through you. You looked away quickly, and looked back. He was gone. “I’m tired,” you told yourself, “I have had too much coffee.”
You pulled yourself together and set about dropping off your resumes. You didn’t cover as much ground as you would have liked to, but you were feeling tired and strange in yourself. Despite the disquiet you felt, you managed to speak to some potential employers. You shook hands and smiled and they said they would get back to you. One man offered you the opportunity to come in on Monday for a trial run. You wanted to feel elated but something was holding you back from it. A seed had been planted somewhere in you and it bloomed dark flowers.
Around 4pm you decided you had done all you could for the day and headed back. On the way to the hotel you passed an old brick apartment building, outside hung a sign “Studios Available! Good Price! Come inside to ask for details!” You walked in through the sturdy front doors and into the manager’s office. The manager, a friendly middle aged lady, gave you an application and you filled it out. The studio wasn’t available to see until Saturday, but the price was good and you told her that you wanted it. You gave her your application and a copy of your resume and explained that you were staying in the hotel while you looked for work -- your prospects were bright and you had more than enough for the deposit. She said she would call you at the hotel later in the week to arrange an appointment for you to see the studio. If everything went well she said you could move in on Saturday, Halloween. You were thrilled. You had dinner in the same diner on your way home and thought about how different things would be in just a few days. You sighed. You paid your tab, picked up a copy of the newspaper and walked slowly back to the hotel. You asked the man at the desk if there were any messages for you and he said no. Something seemed strange, so you asked if he was sure. “Yes,” he snapped, “Why would I want to lie to you?” You turned to leave the desk, but you turned back to him, and almost as an afterthought you mentioned to him that you had seen him earlier that day, near the diner a few blocks away. He looked at you coldly, “That wasn’t me. I never leave.”
You unlocked your door and thought you could hear a scuffling, like something that had been prowling your room in the dark. It sounded strange, not like a mouse or rat, it sounded like something you couldn’t put a finger on. You undressed and fell into bed without even opening the paper.
Your deep sleep was shattered sometime around the small black hours of the morning. The scuffling was back and you could hear chime-like giggling from the bathroom. You sat up, tingling with adrenaline and dread. You flicked on the lamp beside your bed. In the second when light should have flooded the room, there was a pop, a hiss, and the lightbulb stayed dark. You thought about getting up and walking across the room and turning on the light, but then you worried about that noise, the thing moving around on too many legs on the floor. It sounded wet and dangerous. But you needed to do it, to get up and turn on the light. If for nothing but your own piece of mind. There must be an explanation. You needed to see whatever it was; you needed to assess the level of emergency so you could proceed.
As things grew stranger, so did you. By Thursday morning you pulled yourself from bed, uncertain if you had slept or if you had dreamed that you stared at the ceiling while the room breathed and whispered things around you. You felt crazy thinking it, but it was like the room was alive, like it was trying to tell you something. But maybe this was a dream. Weakly, you got dressed. Each button of your shirt was torment. You knew you needed to get out, to get away from the cool silence of your room, but you were held in some hellish gravitational pull. The room whispered in your ear, it begged you to stay.
Slowly, so very slowly, you got ready. You went downstairs to buy a paper and see if there were any messages. The old man told you with a twisted curly smile that no, there were neither this morning, he wished you better luck that day. Your thick stack of resumes had thinned by your hard work hitting the pavement but you felt defeated. You felt shaky. What about the man who you talked to on Tuesday who had asked you if you were available to come in for a working interview this week? It was almost Friday, why hadn’t he called? What about the company you went to see the day before who said they would start calling your references and have you in for a formal interview? What had happened? You knew your references spoke very highly of you, even your old job you were laid off from did. The dam opened and you were awash with a feeling of helplessness. What about the lady from the apartment building? She said that she would call you to arrange an appointment for you to look at the studio she had for rent. Blackness bled from the borders of your mind, slowly saturating the deeper parts of your brain. It told you there was no hope.
By nighttime everything was wrong. The liquid quality where the floor met the wall seemed to saturate the floors, moving to the center, closer to your bed. Perhaps your inability to sleep was making you see these weird spots in the peripheral. There was a growling that you thought was your stomach, but that was impossible, you just ate. The waiter asked if you were feeling alright. You sat at the table looking at photos of your children; you wondered what they would be this year. Who would take them out trick or treating on Saturday. You could have called them but you didn’t. You knew you sounded terrible and didn’t want your friends and family back home to think you were still bitter about leaving, that you weren’t doing so well. You felt so weird, like your skin was crawling and alive. You didn’t know if you could spend another night in the company of invisible scuttling things or the very chilled stillness of that terrible room. You felt like it was eating you alive.
You stayed up all night, clutching the blankets to your chest, watching the walls around you expand and contract. It looked like horrible lungs, breathing in and out, sucking the air from your very mouth. The hell went on forever, outside, past the curtains that billowed with breeze, despite the nailed-shut windows, the night began to recede. You told yourself you were never coming back. As the pale edges of morning crept up the sky, you felt the confidence to get out of bed. There was no water on the floor, you told yourself. The viscous quality of the floor was only in your mind. You took a deep breath and placed and your feet, still tender with sleep, on the floor. It was so very wet and you watched the wetness wash over your toes. It felt warm and slippery and awful. And then you heard it, the thing with too many legs, slipping thickly through whatever hellish substance was covering the floor. It brushed against your foot. Its body slick and scale covered. You squeezed your eyes shut and you screamed.
* * * * *
Your door was locked from the inside when the old man unlocked the door on Saturday, Halloween. Inside, your clothes hung neatly in the closet, your shoes were at the foot of the bed, but you were nowhere to be found. It was as if the room had devoured you. The old man looked around, the shimmering on the floor had retreated to the corners and the room seemed to purr.
He turned off the lights with a click and as he shut the door behind him, he started whistling to himself. He continued to do so all the way down the hall until the elevator swallowed him up to deliver him below, to stand behind his desk, the trash can behind him teeming with discarded scraps of paper with messages of jobs bidding for your future.