Writing Challenge: Week 10
Author’s Note: This one took me a long time. It’s the first part of a planned series of short stories, but as it isn’t in my usual area of speculative fiction, I find myself rather uneasy about it. Oh, well. That’s the point of the challenge: to push myself. It’s rather lengthier than the rest so far. Hope you don’t mind.
Phantasmagoria the First:
The Haunting Bed
by H. M. Snow
“Jittery, aren’t you?”
Ian spared his editor a sidelong glance but refrained from taking the bait.
“I doubt she could have figured out what you were up to this evening. We’re not going anywhere near your usual haunts. I didn’t even pick you up at your apartment building. Relax, Ian. I want you focused for this interview. Mrs Hamill-Jefferson doesn’t give interviews often.”
“Why do we need to interview her, Sid?”
His editor shook her head. “Ian, Ian, that’s the wrong question. After I finally found someone who knows something about Adelaide House, you ought to be asking how soon until we interview her. We’re finally getting to the truth about these rumors.”
“But we aren’t a tabloid,” Ian argued, “nor a newspaper. Travel magazines don’t hunt down rumors.”
The sedan swerved a little as Sid threw back her head and guffawed. “You’re just scared,” she said, “because you know if this interview pans out, you’re headed straight to Adelaide House for a stay. I thought kids like you loved haunted houses and scary movies.”
“I haven’t been a kid for a long time,” said Ian with dignity.
“Kids always say that. To an old lady like me, you’re all kids,” was Sid’s retort. “Look, Ian, I know you’re weak against scary. That’s going to make the article you write all the better, right? Places with atmosphere need a special kind of write-up. When it comes to capturing atmosphere, you’re my ace. I need you for this one.”
Ian slumped lower in the passenger seat. When they arrived at the restaurant, he kept quiet while his editor handed over her keys to the valet beneath the awning.
Mrs Blanche Hamill-Jefferson had already arrived. She was smoker-skinny, with a bosom augmented well beyond nature’s limits. Her eye shadow shimmered between blue and green as her eyes blinked heavy false lashes with the rapidity of uneasy nerves.
A waiter brought menus at once, so rather than begin the interview, they spent the first several minutes of their meeting engrossed in the ordering process. As soon as the waiter took away their menus, Mrs Hamill-Jefferson said, “Dewey said you’re writing an article about that awful Adelaide House. That’s right, isn’t it?” Her heavy-lidded eyes turned from Sid to Ian in expectancy.
“We were lucky to find you,” Sid began. “Adelaide House is such an exclusive hotel that we’ve been hard-pressed even to find its location. What can you tell us about it, Mrs Hamill-Jefferson?”
“Call me Blanche.” Her manner of speaking was far more down-to-earth than her appearance. “My friend Sheri recommended it to me. She said the staff were wonderful and the place had a great haunted-house atmosphere. Sheri and me, we been friends since first grade. We still get together on weekends sometimes to watch old horror flicks like we did in high school. I’m a big fan of horror flicks,” she said, “but that Adelaide House was something else. I told Sheri she must have been crazy to send me there.” With a little deft prompting from Sid, she fell into a recital of the facts. “You first pull up to a place that looks like nothing on earth, just a lump of a house with no style. It’s on a whatchamacallit– one of those streets that doesn’t go anywhere, just winds up in a horseshoe at the front door of the house– so there’s no neighbors close by, just that huge dump of a house. The foyer was nice.” Blanche doodled on the tablecloth with a varnished fingernail. “Wide open and bright from all the windows. But it was empty. I had to give a yell before anybody came to help me. Carl, I think his name was. He took me up to a room. The place felt just empty.” She gave a little shiver. “Like I was the only one in it. The floors were all creaky and noisy. I felt like I should run from my room to the dining room. Haven’t felt that way since I was a kid. But the worst, the absolute worst, was at night. You know that feeling? Like somebody’s watching you, but you know you’re alone? This was worse. I was just about asleep, and I turned over in bed and there was somebody beside me!” Blanche gripped the edge of the table in her fervor. “I know there was! But when I opened my eyes, there wasn’t! I couldn’t get to sleep for a long time after that. When I did, I don’t know when it was, but I reached out my hand in my sleep and touched somebody!”
“Who was it?” said Sid.
But there Mrs Hamill-Jefferson became reticent. “There wasn’t anybody there, I tell you. I sat up, awake, and the bed was empty. I’m no chicken, but there’s something not right about that place. You wouldn’t get me back there for any kind of money. And it was expensive too.”
Persuasion on Sid’s part elicited from the woman an address for Adelaide House. Their food arrived shortly thereafter. The rest of the time was spent by Sid prompting Ian to talk about vacation spots he had visited recently on behalf of their magazine. This carried them to the end of their meal. Blanche shook Ian’s hand at the door. “You really have got a talent for making me see the places you talk about, you know? I gotta go out and pick up a copy of your magazine. Maybe we can do this again sometime?”
Sid stepped in to rescue him. “We’ll be sure to contact you if we have any more questions. I’ll send you a copy of the article when it’s out, too. You’ve been very helpful to us. Thanks so much.” She steered Ian out to the valet station. “You do have a gift, Ian,” she said to him when the valet went after her car. “You have a perfect gift for attracting women who are, to use a Victorian turn of phrase, quite unsuitable. You’re too nice and too meek.” She looked him up and down. “It isn’t as if you’re a little guy. A big teddy bear, maybe, but not a weakling. Why do you act so weak, then?”
Ian did not reply, mainly because the valet was bringing Sid’s sedan. “Oh, no.”
As soon as the valet was out of the car, he began apologizing to Sid for the huge orange paint blot on the passenger-side front door. “This has never happened in our lot before–”
Sid waved him off. She went to inspect the damage and plucked a half-slip of paper that fluttered from the side mirror. “‘Stay away from my Ian,’” she read aloud. “Seriously, Ian, you need to get a restraining order against her.” She waved away his apologies as well. “It’s a good thing Adelaide House is so exclusive. Maybe she won’t find you there.”
This was the thought Ian brought with him as he pulled up beneath the awning at the address given him by Mrs Hamill-Jefferson. As advertised, the house sprawled at the end of an empty cul-de-sac. Rather than approach the front door straightaway, Ian strolled along the path that fronted the hotel. On his right, a tall hedge grew through a wrought-iron fence. On his left, tributary paths branched off into a flower garden. Ian took his camera from its bag and began snapping pictures of the lush verdure. He paused for an especially picturesque view of some roses, but when he lifted his camera to his eye to frame the shot Ian felt a faint movement of air like a breath against the back of his neck. He froze in place. Then, forcing himself, he turned and found himself facing a man even taller and more ursine than he himself. His instant impression was of gazing into a distorting mirror, but the man held a pair of gardening shears instead of a camera. In the next moment, Ian’s eyes told him that the man looked nothing like him: Hispanic, mid-forties, with a heavy brow and cautious eyes.
“Can I help you?” Again, unlike Ian, this man had a voice deep enough to match his build.
“Excuse me,” Ian replied. He scraped together what composure he had left. “This is Adelaide House, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Might I ask who recommended you?”
“Mrs Blanche Hamill-Jefferson,” said Ian.
This answer did not please the other man, but neither did it cause the man to turn Ian away. “I thought Mrs Hamill-Jefferson did not enjoy her stay with us.”
Honesty compelled Ian to say, “No, but we– I would like to see for myself. I’m a journalist,” he added by way of explanation.
The man’s heavy brow lowered. “Journalist? We have certain rules about those. First, you may take photos of the garden, but not of the house or anyone in the house. You may not publish any names or even the address of the house. If you can abide by those rules, then you are welcome to stay.”
These terms were delivered with such a forceful stare that Ian blurted, “Yes, okay, I can do that,” without thought. “I’m Ian Navarro-James.” He held out a hand.
The other shifted the garden shears from right hand to left in order to accept Ian’s hand in a brief grip. “I’m Carl. I manage the house. This way, please.” Carl led Ian to the main entrance. Instead of a lobby, the foyer looked like a living room. On the coffee table lay a guest book, which Carl presented for Ian to sign. Leaving Ian standing in the middle of the foyer, Carl walked to a cabinet on the far wall. Opening the cabinet, Carl stared inside it for an expectant few seconds before taking from it a key. “You get the same room Mrs Hamill-Jefferson had– the Haunting Bed room,” he remarked. “Try not to break anything, please.”
“Haunting… bedroom?” Ian echoed. “Do I have to take that room?”
“House rules: you take the room the house assigns,” said Carl cryptically. “I’ll show you the way.”
“In your car, I assume. I will bring it up later. If you will give me your keys, I can move the car to the carriage house for you also.”
Ian surrendered. Meekly he followed Carl to the room and accepted the wooden key tag in exchange for his car keys. When left alone, he stood just inside the doorway with all the apprehension of a man facing a pit of vipers. Nothing about the room appeared to merit such fear. Its dominant feature was the intricately carved four-poster bed standing isolated in the middle of the floor like an island. The motif of the posts was positively bacchanalian, a riot of human figures twisted and stretched out of proportion. Every figure seemed to be reaching for something beyond human scope. The sight of it made Ian shiver.
That was nothing to the way he leaped when the corner of his suitcase nudged him in the back. The echo of his voice fell dead in the room, leaving him half-turned to face Carl with a panicked expression on his face.
“Is there… anything else I can bring for you?” Carl asked.
Ian pulled himself together. “No, not at all. Is it… are there any house rules about looking around?”
“If there are,” said Carl, “the house will enforce them.”
“And is it really true? Is the room haunted?”
For once, Carl’s expression looked positively human. “There aren’t any ghosts in Adelaide House. Nothing dangerous is allowed in here– unless you brought it with you.” Carl made a quaint bow, a gesture out of the late nineteenth century, before he retreated.
Ian checked his phone for the time. On Sid’s suggestion, he had arrived just before lunchtime so as to have enough time to explore. He left his case unopened by the bed and headed out into the hallways. It was a twisted complexity to the halls of Adelaide house, steps up and down at weird intervals with corners at unexpected points. Altogether the house gave the impression of having been built on a series of whims, changing styles with each change of whim. After whacking his shin for the second time on an unexpected set of steps, Ian sat down on the offending steps and sighed. “Where am I?”
“If you take this hallway,” said a whisper-soft voice behind him, “you’ll find the dining room.”
Ian bounded to his feet. At the top of the steps a pale, thin woman in gauzy floor-length dress faced him. She stood pointing an ominous finger to his left. “Yes?” he asked feebly.
“Lunch today is, I believe, salmon and asparagus, with crêpes for dessert.”
“Sure,” Ian replied. By instinct he turned his gaze in the direction of her pointing finger. When he looked back, the woman had vanished. Ian hurried away.
The hallway he took did lead him straight to a comfortable dining room. Several small tables were scattered around the room. At the far end, a galley kitchen stretched the width of the room. A florid middle-aged woman stood behind the counter. “You must be a guest,” she said with bright cheer. “Hungry? Won’t be another minute and everything will be ready. Pick yourself a seat. I’ll bring it right out to you.”
Ian seated himself near the kitchen. When the woman emerged, she was dressed in the uniform of a waitress from a Fifties diner. She brought him a plate of salmon and asparagus. “Staying with us long? I’m Bets, honey.”
“Thanks. I’m Ian.”
“Eat up. When you’re done, I’ll make dessert. Crêpes won’t wait, you know.” She would not let him leave the dining room until he could hold no more food or coffee.
Ian felt much better after he had eaten. There was something about Bets that made the supernatural seem implausible. He found his way back to the foyer, but Carl was nowhere to be seen. He decided that, for the time being, he would take pictures of the garden. Sid would want something to show for this visit. The afternoon was sunny and wonderfully mundane. Ian enjoyed the feel of it on his shoulders as he prowled the grounds, which turned out far more extensive than he had assumed. There were a few outbuildings scattered in groves of trees, just as eclectic as the interior corridors. He even got a few fine shots of a defunct fountain crusted with moss.
Sunlight slanted obliquely through the trees when Ian decided to return indoors for another go at exploring the hotel’s meandering halls. He thought it strange that he encountered no one in the foyer. For all the noise he could hear, Ian might as well have been alone in the hotel. He soon lost track of himself again, though he found a good many rooms that intrigued him. One open door led him to a two-story library where antique tome and current best-seller could be found nestled comfortably side-by-side. Another open door led him to a gallery of artwork ranging from famous to obscure, Renaissance to pop art, oils to pencil sketches. Ian stumbled upon a games room with a pool table and a climbing wall, and from there almost immediately discovered a little museum of toy trains. Beyond the train museum was a room full of dressmaker’s dummies all draped in vintage female costumes.
Dizzied by the nonstop discoveries, Ian wandered until his phone told him it was past seven in the evening. He began to feel hunger pangs, but try as he might he could not find his way back to the dining room, not even from the juncture where the ghostly woman had directed him earlier. Great was his relief when he turned a corner and saw Carl heading toward him. “Sorry,” Ian said, “but I’ve gotten lost again. Which way to the dining room?”
“The dining room,” said Carl, “has been reserved. I can bring your dinner to your room.” The way he spoke made the word can indistinguishable from will.
“I can’t seem to find that either,” Ian admitted.
Carl guided him to his room and left him there only a short while before returning with a tray. Supper was steak and a baked potato, with a house salad on the side. Ian ate thoughtfully, but always with the peculiar ‘haunting bed’ at the edge of his vision. Then he started his tablet and took down notes for his article. At first he had his headphones on, but as the evening deepened outside his window he became aware of a repetitive creaking in the hallway. It was loud enough to pierce the music barrier, so he turned the music off and removed his headphones to listen more carefully.
It was the noise of an elderly house at first, nothing more. The longer Ian listened, the nearer the creaking came. By the time it drew even with Ian’s door, it was so loud that not even a frame as sturdy as Carl’s could have weighed enough to press on the floor that hard. The wall trembled. Ian felt the tremor under his feet on the far side of the room. Then it creaked past and faded again down the hallway.
He tried to resume his work, but he could no longer focus. His phone gave the time as half past eleven in the evening. Ian shut down his tablet and put it away in his suitcase. “I’m here for the experience,” he told himself sternly as he changed into a t-shirt and a pair of old workout shorts as his pajamas. He stepped into the attached bath to brush his teeth, taking his time. By the time he turned back the covers, he had worked himself into a more adventurous mindset. He propped himself up with the numerous pillows. “Bring it on.”
Of course nothing happened at once. He lay back, listening to the noises of Adelaide House surrounding him. The night breeze through the window had a soothing effect. Ian slowly fell asleep listening to the rustle of leaves.
It was the wind that startled him awake from dreams of children running up and down the aisles of an old country church. His disoriented gaze swung wide, looking toward the door first in an effort to ascertain his location. When comprehension struck him, he stayed on his side for much longer than necessary. The back of his neck prickled. The night breeze had turned gusty, throwing a patter of rain against the half-shut window pane now and then. Deliberately, Ian forced himself to turn onto his back and look to his left.
No one was there.
He exhaled and wiped both hands over his face. “I could’ve sworn…”
A hand closed on his elbow. “Ian…” Rising up beside him from nothing, the figure took shape as the young woman who had lived in the apartment beneath his at his prior address. “Found you!”
With a strangled gasp, Ian rolled out of bed. He scrambled to his feet, only to find the bed empty and tousled. As he stared, he heard the creak beginning to build in the hallway again. It rolled closer and closer, gaining volume as it came, until the whole room vibrated. A scream of anger echoed more distantly. Something shattered with a noise like crystal. Ian edged along the wall away from the door, keeping the bed at the center of his attention, but nothing appeared among the rumpled bedding. In time, the house quieted again. Ian decided to try sleeping again.
No sooner had his attention begun to drift and his eyelids to sag than movement to his left startled him awake. The same figure was crawling over the edge of the mattress toward him. “Ian… you can’t hide from me. We’re meant to be together.”
As soon as he stood on the cool wood floor, Ian could no longer see the figure. When he leaned forward beneath the draped canopy and braced his knee against the edge of the mattress, the figure seeped out of one of the tall bedposts like a ship’s figurehead, arms stretching toward Ian with the same hopeless reach as the carved figures tangled around the posts.
“No!” Ian clenched his fingers around the bedclothes. “I’m not hiding! I’m tired of this. Leave me alone and let me sleep. You have nothing to do with me!”
The figure stopped, still reaching but coming no further toward him.
“I mean it! I don’t even know you! Whatever you think about me, it’s all in your head. None of it is real.” Just irritated enough to be bold, Ian climbed back into bed, pulled the covers up to his chest, and said, “Now good night! I don’t want to see you again.”
The figure retreated back into the bedpost.
Even so, once the irritability faded from him, Ian was too wakeful. The half-open window rattled under the pressure a particularly strong wind gust and slammed shut of its own accord. With the window closed, the restless hotel’s groans became more distinct. Creak, groan, growl, as if Adelaide House were an ill-tempered and arthritic old man. Some of the surges of creaking had the splinter of wood in them. He wondered if the floor might give way. Every so often, Ian was sure he heard someone far away, screaming. And all night through, the hollow eye sockets of the people carved into his bedposts stared at him hungrily.
It was nearly four in the morning when he gave up any pretense of sleeping, stepped into the shower and then dried and dressed for the day. His first plan was to attempt to find the dining room again; failing that, he decided to visit the gardens, if he could find his way to the front door. Wearily he stepped out of his room and realized with some disorientation that somehow his room was at the end of the hallway instead of halfway down it as he remembered from the previous day. He followed the hallway in the only direction available to him: straight ahead. At the intersection, he smelled coffee brewing and turned toward the scent.
“Morning, honey,” Bets called out to him from behind the kitchen counter. “You’re up early. How do pancakes sound?”
Ian smiled weakly. “I’ll eat as many as you can make.”
“You’ve got that right.” He gazed over the kitchen layout. A book lay open with its spine raised for inspection at the edge of the counter. “Poe? How can you read Poe in a place like this?”
“I like a good chill up my spine,” said Bets cheerfully. “This is the safest place I’ve ever lived, so why not here? There’s nothing evil in this house, except what you bring in with you.”
“That’s what Carl said.”
“Because that’s what Miss Adelaide says. She said you’d be wanting an early breakfast. You got put in the room with the haunting bed, didn’t you? What did you see?”
Ian leaned his elbows on the table. “There’s this girl. She used to live downstairs from me, but I had to move because she was starting to creep me out. She’d turn up at my door with cookies and meals and flowers, only soon it was vases and pictures and small pieces of furniture and curtains, like she was going to move in. I don’t even know her first name,” he added in disbelief. “The name on her mailbox was ‘Koszewski’ or ‘Kozminski,’ or something Polish like that. After I moved, it only took her two weeks to find me. She got people to let her into the building so she could knock on my door. Just before I came here, she vandalized my editor’s car because Sid took me with her to interview somebody at a restaurant. She turns up everywhere. You know, I wasn’t even surprised when she started coming out of the woodwork– literally– last night,” Ian laughed. “She does it everywhere else.”
Bets set down a plate of pancakes and a bottle of syrup in front of him. “You know why that bed’s called the haunting bed? Anybody who tries to sleep in it gets to face whatever has them tied down inside. The woman who had it before you– some stuck-up woman with an impossible body and a long name, she didn’t talk to me much– she had a worse night than you did, if you’ll believe it.”
“Hamill-Jefferson,” murmured Ian between mouthfuls.
Bets sat down opposite Ian. Propping her chin in one hand, she watched him eat. “I bet you think this is a hotel, don’t you? Most of them do when they come here the first time.”
Ian swallowed hard. “What do you mean? Isn’t it?”
“Not a bit,” Bets laughed. “It’s a private house. It’s Miss Adelaide’s house. She’ll never turn away anyone who needs a place to stay, so the rest of us got used to it. It’s how most of us came here in the first place. She lives like a hermit at the top of the house, but she can’t leave people alone, not if they’ve got something going wrong inside their heads. She’s a shrink of some kind, and a good one. That woman before you, she was the sort who blames everything on everybody else. She held grudges against all kinds of people, and every last one of them turned up in the haunting bed for her to face. Ooh, you should have seen her. She had a total meltdown. If it wasn’t for Miss Adelaide, I don’t know what might have happened.”
“Wait,” said Ian. “If this isn’t a hotel… Mrs Hamill-Jefferson said it was expensive.”
“You’d better believe it was expensive for her. She broke an antique chair, threw it against the wall in a rage and broke it all to pieces! Oh, Carly was mad at her. She broke the mirror in the bathroom too. And if that wasn’t enough, she clawed the doctor right across the face with those painted nails of hers! I’ll say it was expensive. Carly wasn’t going to let her get away without what he calls ‘just reparations.’ Not on your life, he wasn’t! So he sent her the bill. That chair she broke was worth fifteen hundred dollars by itself,” Bets said with a chuckle. “All because she couldn’t face up to her own guilt.” She studied Ian’s face for a moment. “We’ve got another like that one here now. Miss Adelaide’s been dealing with her. From what I hear, she came right after Carly took you up to your room. I hear she claimed you recommended her to come here and tried to get the room next door to yours for herself.”
Ian set down his fork with a clatter. “No. Not her. Not here.”
“Don’t you fret, honey. Didn’t I tell you Miss Adelaide’s been dealing with her? You think you had a rough night… More pancakes?”
Much of Ian’s appetite had faded, but he held out his empty plate anyway so as not to dampen Bets’ good mood. He picked at his second helping. His hand flinched when, much nearer at hand than during the night, a rising scream of horror echoed through the house. “What–?”
Bets was quick out the door, so Ian pursued her to the foyer. There a strange tableau held him shocked motionless: the pale, thin woman whom he had encountered in the hall earlier loomed over a crawling body that hardly seemed human. It was the crawling figure that uttered such chilling screams. A bloodied mouth and chin was all the face that could be seen through hanks of sweat-matted long brunette hair. Bloodied fingertips scratched against the floorboards in a vain effort to propel the figure across the floor. Soon words became intelligible through the screams: “No, no, not him! It isn’t true! It can’t be true! I didn’t eat him! Tell me I didn’t…” The figure wept and howled.
Serene through the grotesque spectacle, the pale woman crouched down so that her gauzy skirts pooled around her feet. “Is it not true in its own way? The dreams you suffered have truth in them.” She spoke evenly, although often her voice was lost beneath the frenzy. “It is your own irrational hunger that frightens you.” Then, lifting her head, she spoke in the same level tone. “Carlos? Have you gotten through yet?”
Ian started to find Carl standing near him, phone in hand. He was nodding. “Doctor? It’s Carl up at the house. Miss Adelaide has someone she needs your help with. Yes… yes… thank you, Doctor.” He hung up. “He’s on his way.”
They stood around the feral figure until a car’s tires screeched at the curb outside. A man entered, an older man in scrubs and a white coat. “That didn’t take long,” he said to the pale woman without prelude.
“Because it was not far below the surface in this one,” she replied.
“Let me.” Carl moved her respectfully but firmly to one side and helped the doctor lift their maddened guest in a semi-carry out through the front door.
The pale woman closed the door behind them. Then, as calm as ever, she addressed Ian. “I believe she will not trouble you any longer, Mr Navarro-James.”
“That… that was her? My stalker?” Ian gaped at the woman. “Who are you?”
“I am Adelaide House.”
“What did you do to her? Did you let her stay, just so you could drive her crazy?”
“Drive her crazy?” Adelaide House regarded Ian with patient interest. “No one can do that to another. If I did anything, it was to lift her mental illness out into the open where it could be treated. You yourself know that she was far from healthy. And you? Has your stay ‘driven you crazy,’ as you put it? No. You are a well-balanced, if rather timid young man. When faced with the evil that haunted you, you confronted it openly and refused it dominance over you. Well done,” she added.
“Uh… thank you?” Bewildered, Ian could only watch her walk away.
After a while, the draft from the front door reminded Ian that he was still standing where she had left him. Bets had gone, but Carl was returning from rendering assistance to the doctor. The older man said, as if it had all been perfectly normal, “Were you needing to stay more than just the one night? If you were, Miss Adelaide will make room for you somewhere.”
Ian stammered a bit before he found his wits. “Yes,” he said at last. “I think I do need to stay longer. I don’t understand any of this at all.”
“Then I look forward to seeing where the house takes you,” was Carl’s reply.