Miserable, I thought to myself as the cold wind sliced through my fleece jacket. It was bad enough that it was icy enough to freeze blood, but it was made all the worse with the sun setting at about 2:30, plunging the state into frigid darkness. This day was particularly chilly due to the fact that grey skies had blotted out the sun all day long, denying the relief of sweet heat to mid-coast Maine.
The brisk walk from my car to the hotel felt much longer than it was, and by the time that I reached the safety of the lobby I had to keep from visibly shaking. I was greeted by the previous front desk shift; the housekeepers had already left for the day.
“What does the arrival list look like?” I asked, realizing only mid-query how exhausted my voice sounded.
Rich snorted a bored response. “You’ve got one arrival for tonight, might give you a chance to take a nap. Sounds like you need one!” I considered a harsh rebuke, but thought better of it, wandering over to the coffee makers for some liquid energy. I prayed to the caffeine gods that the Royal Cup Gourmet could hold me over until shift’s end at eleven. With a sigh I dragged myself back around the desk as my co-worker, swift as could be, punched out, donned his winter coat and darted through the double doors to his car.
It always amazed me the speed that an overweight and overly sedentary individual could display in situations pertaining to work and lack thereof. However, I assumed that Rich had something urgent to get to. Most likely that urgent something was a twelve-pack of Budweiser, but I was not one to judge. It was probably difficult for him to maintain his impressive beer-gut and still expand it each year.
I settled in behind the front desk with a Steven King book that I had brought with me in case I got bored. I did get bored, and only five minutes into my shift.
Perhaps it was the mood of the evening, perhaps it was the affects of the lack of human interaction, or perhaps it was the writings of the King of Horror that put me in the mindset to be unnerved, but what happened that December night at the hotel, I am not likely to forget.
The shift was going as a shift could be expected to go in a hotel in Maine in the dead of winter. Very few calls came in, many were retired folk who had nothing better to do than to reserve rooms for the next August so they could come up and see their “beautiful” grandkids. Grandkids who were probably below the age of ten, and would probably care less that their white-haired relatives were going to budge into their lives if not for the innocent bribes of chocolate and quarters.
And of course the grandparents had been convinced by all their near-senile friends that if they whined and complained enough to the people that made their reservations that they would surely get a better rate, so most of my first few idle hours were spent going through the usual aggravating price battle that begins when a costumer thinks that in filling a room, they are worth far more than our rate integrity.
“Well, the girl last night told me that I could get a rate of $50 in August!” the shrill old-lady voice would exclaim.
Yeah right. We never offer less than $150 for a room in August.
“I’m sorry ma’me, but she must have informed you incorrectly. We don’t offer a rate that low in the summer.”
“I’m a senior though! I deserve a better discount!”
“Ma’me, I already gave you your senior discount. Unless you are working for the government I can’t give you a better discount than you already have.”
“Look, I’m sure that you won’t be filling up those nights, why can’t you give me a better rate?”
We fill up nearly every night in August. However, having worked this job for a few years, it is easy to hear in a person’s voice that all they want is a personal victory. If you make them think that they win, you win.
“Alright, I can reduce the price from $181.99 to $175.99, but that’s really all I can do!” I said filling my voice with the sound of a false defeat. I find that sometimes people can get so caught up in a moment that they don’t even realize they are being duped. All the lady heard was that the price was being reduced. She didn’t even recognize that she was only saving six bucks; either that or she didn’t care. In any case, I could clearly hear her try to cover the phone mouthpiece and shout to her alleged husband; “Harold! Susan was right! I had to argue it for a while but I got the little snot to lower the price!”
I finished the reservation with a grin on my face. My job was satisfying sometimes.
It was just minutes later that the first incident of the night occurred.
It was silent in the lobby. I had turned off the television in the lobby because I was sick and tired of hearing Glenn Beck accuse everyone politically left-of-center to be Nazi-Communist murderers. I sat behind the front desk with my book in my lap reading contentedly when I heard a barely audible click noise coming from the double doors.
I looked up, expecting to see someone opening the door, but there was no one, and the doors were unmoved. Shrugging it off without interest I returned to my page, but as I did so the doors flew open in a burst of wind. I dropped my book in the confusion as the cold air hit me like a wave of frigid water. In the same moment the large light over the double doors flashed and went dark. The doors then slammed shut.
It all happened so fast I was truly shocked, and for a while I just sat there, shaking for the second time that evening. I had never seen the doors fly open like that in the winter. Sometimes in the Summer, when windows were open, a sudden change in temperature could cause a pressure shift that could cause the doors to blow open a bit, but in the winter, the pressure was reversed, making it, if anything, more difficult for something like that to happen. What had just happened; it just wasn’t natural. Of course, the sudden loss of the light was also strange, particularly when I investigated the blowout.
I went down to maintenance, braving the intense heat of the boiler rooms to grab a replacement florescent. When I climbed up the ladder and unhooked the burned out light bulb I saw that the connectors were blackened and smoking. Fortunately I was able to recognize the short circuit. Putting in a new bulb would waste a brand new bulb at best, set fire to the ceiling at worst.
I left the unused bulb behind the front desk with me. The entryway was unusually dim, and I must say that it looked a little creepy, Steven King had put me in the mindset of being uneasy, but as a sensible fellow I decided that my unease merely stemmed from the association with the King book in my lap.
I went back to my reading in silence.
It was not for another half an hour that I noticed something else was wrong. Many people are familiar with the high-pitch sound that a tube TV puts out when the screen is turned on. Behind the front desk is a security television set that is linked to four different cameras. It usually shows the pool downstairs, two hallways and a shot from behind the front desk looking outward to where the guests came in. It makes a similar noise to most tube televisions.
While I was reading I suddenly realized that the room sounded different. It was subtle. I looked up to find the security screen off. I had not turned it off and I found quickly that the power button was useless. Confused, I checked behind the TV to see if it had come unplugged. It had not.
At this point I had become considerably uncomfortable. I decided to ditch the Steven King book in favor of turning the lobby TV back on for no other reason than to have some sound in the deafeningly silent empty lobby. However, when I powered up the television, I was met with nothing more than snow. I flipped the channel up one. Still snow. I flipped to the next channel. More snow. One more channel. Snow.
Even with the sound of static my uncomfortable feelings abetted long enough to give way to frustration. Of course my shift would be the one where the television was on the fritz. I shut off the TV angrily, plunging the lobby back into silence. I glanced back over to the blackened security screen, and I could not shrug off the feeling that something was very wrong.
I sat behind the desk for another half an hour; it was near nine-thirty. I had been checking my facebook. Technically it wasn’t actually allowed for us to do while we were on the clock; however, during shifts such as these, there were no real obligations when no one was around. It was still unnaturally quiet for the hotel lobby; however, my nerves had been settled by a simple distraction until then.
I had looked down for a second. Just a moment or two, and when I looked up I nearly fell out of my chair. There had been no opening or closing door, and he had not announced his presence to me before, but there stood a man. The man was tall and skeletal. His cheekbones were high and sharp, casting shadows below them on his face. His eyes were sunken and dark. He looked to be a pale, ill color. His right hand rested limply upon the front desk like a dead thing and the left hand hung out of view behind the desk.
I was speechless; he had shocked me with his appearance seemingly out of thin air. I must have looked funny while in my desperate attempt to compose myself, however he remained silent. He just looked at me with icy blue eyes. He was so still that he could have been mistaken for a granite statue. I stood shakily and asked for his name.
“Scott Harper.” He said in a rough gravely voice. It was a voice that indicated a relatively long life of smoking; I found that when I moved closer to him that the smell of smoke hung around him like an invisible cloud. I eyed him warily and then glanced down at the arrival list to find that his was the single name on the list.
I took his credit card and assigned him to room 213. I figured it would be close enough that he wouldn’t complain about his distance from the lobby, but for my own interest, he would be less likely to stop by as often. I would rather not be disturbed by him again. I didn’t like the look of him. He just didn’t feel right, and I hated the smoky smell about him too.
I handed him the key to the room and watched as he quietly walked down the hall to his room. He took long, lazy strides and almost floated down to the door to his room. I snuck out from behind the desk to look at him while he walked. His back was turned to me. I kept my eye on him as he reached his door. He inserted the key card and the affirmative beep echoed down the empty hallway so loudly that it sounded as if all the doors of the hallway were beeping in unison. It startled me, and as Mr. Harper stepped into his room he turned, he looked at me coldly. I felt as if I was frozen in place, and a very sharp chill crawled up my spine.
The instant passed and he disappeared into his room leaving nothing but the echo of the door slam and me left in the hall.
I felt as if I were in a daze as I walked back to the desk. I couldn’t understand what was wrong with me, I just felt bad. I picked up that day’s paper. A copy had been left behind the front desk. I shuffled through to the comics to cheer myself up. Charlie Brown missed the football as usual; Dilbert got into yet another cynical conversation with his pointy-haired boss.
I flipped back to the State section and looked over the top of the front page. Nothing interesting. I flipped to the bottom half of the page and my blood froze. The title was “Remembering Scott Harper” There was a picture of the man I had just checked in. His eyes were warmer and he didn’t look so pale, this may be because in the picture he was smiling. My eyes raced over the article. I quickly learned that this was the first year anniversary of his death. He was at one time on the town council and also a prominent member of the local school board. However, he was remembered by friends as having his life go downhill. He had become unhealthy, he lost his positions and then exactly one year before, he had been evicted and was headed to a local hotel in his car when he had a heart attack and crashed. He died before anyone reached the scene.
I folded the paper slowly and sat very still in the silence of the lobby. The TV screen was dark. The security screen was dark. The doorway was dark. And the face behind the desk was dark.
Mr. Harper stood before me looking cold and unwelcome. The stale smell of his cigarettes attacked my sense of smell. My tongue was tied and I said nothing
I noticed his eyes dilated unnaturally, but he said nothing, he just nodded as if he were affirming the question I had not asked. I don’t know how long he stood there, but without a word he turned and walked back in the direction of his room. I moved to watch him walk back down the hallway.
As he walked toward his room, each light he walked under would flicker and dim and suddenly go out until the hallway was completely dark until his room. Before he reached his door I darted behind the front desk, shaking uncontrollably. I grabbed for the phone and dialed 911 only to realize that I hadn’t pressed the button to dial out. I scrambled to redial, dropping the phone in the process, but before I could complete the call I heard a loud thump come from the direction of room 213. I froze in a moment of indecision, and then I heard an inhuman scream come from the same direction. Despite all logical common sense of what I should do in that situation, I mindlessly raced down the darkened hall in the direction of 213 with my master key.
I knocked on the door frantically once, twice, and then another bloodcurdling scream burst from behind the door causing my knees to buckle I was so frightened. I inserted the master key and flung the door open to find the most horrifying sight of my life. Not a light was turned on in the room, but Mr. Harper lay on the floor with a yellowish-orange glow around his outline with a burst of fire exploding from his chest where his heart would be. His eyes were wide and his mouth wide open, that firey light glowing from within.
There was another screech and I backed up too quickly, falling backwards into the hallway. I scrambled to get up, tore my gaze away from the sight and I sprinted down the hallway back toward the desk, and more importantly, the phone. I grabbed it, completed the call to 911 and tumbled over my words as I exclaimed that I needed the police at the hotel immediately.
They said that the police would be there in minutes, and as I hung up the phone the horrible noises continued from the room. I darted across the lobby heading for the front door so that I could just get out of the building. Before I reached the double doors with the burned out light above I glanced down the darkened hallway in time to see dark tendrils start squirming down the hallway toward me. I pulled at the door frantically, but it wouldn’t budge at all. It was as if the doors were part of the wall itself. And the black tendrils just kept getting closer and closer. I watched in horror as they stopped, just inches from my face. Suddenly, just before they reached me, there was a flash of light brighter than anything I had ever seen.
Blinded, I stumbled out into the snow. I could feel, but not see the blustering wind kick up the dusty snow that buffeted me. I scrambled to try to get as far from the building and the screams as I could but without sight I could not see the ice below my feet. I slipped, fell and felt a sharp pain in the back of my head.
I opened my eyes to the red and blue lights of the police cruiser reflecting off the drifts of snow. I heard steps crunching on snow coming in my direction so I tried to pull myself up off the ice. My head pulsed painfully as I palmed the frozen ground to stand up.
A young man with short cropped brown hair and a strong, chiseled jaw stood before me in a common police uniform.
“My name is Officer Steven Henry, Belfast PD. We received an emergency call from here about five minutes ago. What is the problem?”
Rather than trying to explain what I could not even understand, I told the Officer to follow me. Rubbing the back of my head, I opened the doors of the lobby to find that the light bulb that I had removed at the beginning of the day was still out and the hallway to room 213 was still dark with burned out lights.
I walked purposefully down the hallway, less scared now with an officer with a gun by my side. I picked up the keys I had dropped on the move. I inserted the master key. No response.
I swore loudly. “What’s the matter?” Officer Henry asked agitated.
“Hold on a second,” I mumbled and then sprinted down the hall back toward the front desk. I grabbed a special screw driver out of the battery replacement kit at the front desk and then booked it back to the door. Adrenaline pumping through my hands, I quickly removed the screws and ripped the lock out of the door. Hands shaking, I shoved the door open. A blast of cold air that was very similar to the one earlier in the evening hit me from inside the room and almost blew me off my feet. I turned to Officer Henry to look at him. He seemed unaffected. He stepped swiftly into the room. I flicked on the light switch behind him and I stared over his shoulder, not knowingwhat to I would see. I was shocked.
The floor was clear. The beds lay untouched; the bathroom door was open revealing everything was as the housekeepers leave them.
“Why did you call?” Officer Henry asked coldly.
“I- there was someone here… I checked him in…” I stumbled over my words trying desperately to process how I could explain my night to an agitated officer of the law. “Just, follow me I’ll show you on the computer”
Officer Henry followed me behind the front desk and I pulled up the in-house list to show him that the man had, in fact, been there. I found only a blank screen.
“Look kid,” the officer began, but I couldn’t listen. I knew he was going to give me a talk about using 911 more responsibly. I just couldn’t understand what had happened. I realized at that time that I was still shaking hard and I couldn’t understand why he couldn’t see that for himself.
Behind the officer the front doors opened. I jumped, but I quickly saw that the door had been opened by our sweet old night auditor Sheryl. Officer Henry turned to eye her quickly and I glanced at the clock; it was just before eleven. Henry had finished his lecture so he sighed and exited through the same doors.
I breathed slowly, still standing in front of the blank computer screen. Sheryl eyed me warily as she passed to punch in. I still felt my hands shaking when Sheryl returned, attaching her magnetic name tag to her shirt.
“Are you alright?” Sheryl asked, avoiding the obvious questions about the police officer.
“Sheryl, you are here from eleven o’clock until seven AM five nights a week, all year long. Have you ever… have you ever seen anything strange?” I was embarrassed to ask it. I wasn’t superstitious and I didn’t want people to start thinking I was a nut or something.
“Honey, I believe that there are things that happen in this world that cannot ever be explained.”
“So you have?” I asked excitedly.
“No dear. I’m just saying that something could happen…” She spoke slowly and gravely.
I remembered at that time that the lock was still out of 213. I glanced at the clock again and realized that I had another five minutes before my shift ended and Sheryl may have trouble replacing the lock herself. I grabbed what I would need and I stepped into the hallway.
The lights were all on. I hadn’t noticed if the security screen was back on when I was behind the front desk so I darted back behind the front desk. It was back on.
“Sheryl, did you notice the lights out in the hallway when you came in?” I asked her.
“No dear, I didn’t notice.”
“Did you see if the security screen was off when you saw it?” I asked.
“I’ve never seen it off in the past four years.”
That’s when I remembered that Sheryl didn’t seem disturbed when she first walked in underneath the light I had taken out. “What about the light by the double-” I turned to the front doors where I saw that the light bulb was in and on.
“That was on when I came in honey.”
I thought back to when Officer Henry followed me down the darkened hallway he had not made a comment nor shown that he had been disturbed by it. I was the only one who saw it.
I was emotionally exhausted, but I took what I needed to fix the door and I walked down to 213. As I fixed the lock back into the door I glanced again and again into the darkened room, but there was nothing to indicate that anything was wrong. I screwed in the final screw into the side of the lock to keep it in place, and then I placed the screw driver on the ground so I could test it.
I closed the door and inserted the master key. The lock beeped and I opened the door slowly. I had a horrible feeling that I was going to see something I did not want to see. However, the door opened to the darkened room, untouched, as before.
I could not understand what happened that night. It was as if everything that I saw never actually happened. I was not superstitious. I didn’t believe in ghosts, spirits, demons and whatnot. There was not enough evidence to suggest that they exist. On this night, there was no evidence. If I was anyone else, I would not believe my story.
Perhaps, I thought to myself, perhaps nothing happened tonight. Perhaps I should see a doctor or something. I bent down to grab the screw driver off the floor. When I did so I noticed to the right of my hand, on the floor, was a shadow. It moved.
I stood up and spun around to find nothing. I figured I had just been seeing things, but all the same, I began shaking again, and I picked up the faint, but familiar smell of smoke.