“And what brings you to use our rooms tonight?” the clerk asked as I filled out the paperwork.
“Just a place to stay the night,” I replied as I signed the last line of the agreement. “It has been a long day.”
“Well we are pleased that you’ve chosen to stay with us,” the clerk said. The light from above his desk reflecting over top of his glasses, but seemed to shine in his smile. In contrast, his dark blue jacket seemed to absorb any light which shone down on it, which lay overtop of a white button down and a dark red tie. “Have you ever stayed at a boarding house before?” I nodded, as did the couple checking in next to me. The clerk smiled, pleased.“That’s great to hear— just to retouch on some things, I’ll just run down a few rules of the house. The kitchen is free for any of you to use, our meals are usually potluck style at seven thirty. And the lounge is open afterwards for parlor games. You’ve just missed tonight’s games and dinner by fifteen minutes, I’m afraid.”
Looking around at the lounge, I saw no stragglers or even board games remaining on the tables.
“Quite alright, we are a little tired for games,” said the female of the couple.
“Another time then,” the clerk said, his tight, polite smile never wavering. His pointed toward the hall behind me. “Your room, sir, is down there to the left. Room seventeen. Just right beyond there are more rooms and the communal bathroom. Again, everything is free for you to use, we only ask that you clean up after yourself. And we hope you enjoy your stay.”
Slinging my bags over my shoulder, I nodded to the couple and made my way down the hall. The lamps protruding from the walls were set low, making the green carpet traveling the hall seem darker than it probably was. I could barely see beyond the next lamp— the place was probably winding down for the night, and I was ready to wind down with it.
My room was simple. In one corner was a desk, empty except for a lamp and a mirror on the wall behind it. A small dresser of dark mahogany stood opposite the desk, pushed up against a blank wall. Boarding houses I had been in before had been decorated with a painting or two here or there, but this room was void of any decoration.
What they did have were spare sheets on the bed. Setting my bags down I turned them over in my hand with surprise. Some places I had stayed before did not offer sheets. I had brought my own, and would use those, but it was a nice gesture by the establishment.
Satisfied with my accommodations, I began to make my way to the bathroom to brush my teeth, perhaps a quick shave, and then settle down for the night all cleaned up. Pacing down the hall, I looked at each door, wondering if there were anyone else inside. The place seemed very quiet— was it maybe later than it felt, and I had checked in as people were heading to bed?
Almost absent-mindedly, I pressed the power button on my electric toothbrush. The thing would not turn on though, and I looked down at it, puzzled. I pushed the button again— still nothing. It charged just last night, and was working this morning, I thought as I grabbed the doorknob to what I thought was the bathroom. Was the thing jammed?
Closing the door, I looked up to see that I was not in the bathroom. I had wandered into another bedroom, this one with someone in it. Two someones, actually. Sitting on a bed pushed against the wall was a little girl, dressed in a very peculiar dress. The lace and patterning on it made it look as though it belonged on an old doll.
The girl in the dress stared at me, eyes wide from behind a mess of brown curls.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I apologized, holding my hands up.
“It’s quite alright,” she said in a pleasant voice.
“It happens a lot, actually,” came a voice from the desk. An older boy probably in his late teens sat under the lamp, reading a book. He did not turn around to greet me, and I could see through the mirror his square framed glasses and short hair, in a similar brown hue to the little girl’s.
“Is the bathroom the next door?” I asked them.
“A few doors down,” the boy said, not looking up as he turned the page.
“Thank you, and again, sorry for intruding,” I said as I reached for the door handle. However, as I turned the knob, I found it stuck. But it swung smoothly from the outside, I thought.
“Sorry, but your door is stuck,” I told them, twisting the knob again.
“That happens sometimes,” the boy said in an almost bored voice as his head turned from one side of the book to the other. “You just need to give it time.”
I tried again, but the doorknob would not move. I frowned, feeling awkward and embarrassed that I was intruding on these strangers’ room.
“Do you have parents that are coming?” I asked them. “Perhaps it will only open from the outside.”
“Papa will be here soon,” the little girl said brightly.
“Your Papa?” I asked. She nodded. “Papa said to clean up the room, and he would be back soon.”
I looked around. Unless there were clothes in the dresser which had been put away, or a bag of their things shoved under the bed, there was nothing visible that needed to be put away.
“I think it would look bad if your Papa walked in on some stranger with his two children,” I said, trying the doorknob again. This time I pulled as I twisted. The door bent a little from the middle, but the latch would not move, even though it was definitely unlocked. I was stuck in this room, I realized, at least until Papa came.
“It happens all the time,” she said.
“It is late,” I said to the girl I thumbed my toothbrush nervously, trying to pass the time with small talk. “Shouldn’t you be dressed for bed?”
“This is what Papa said to wear,” was her reply. I nodded slowly, trying to figure out what to say next.
“Have you stayed here long?” I asked her. She nodded.
“We have stayed here for a very long time,” she said, emphasizing the last three words. I opened my mouth to ask what was a very long time, but something in the back of my mind told me I should not. There was something very peculiar about this room, and I was suddenly very uncomfortable.
“What are your names?” I asked.
“That is Charles,” she said, “and I am Victoria.”
“Well… it is very nice to meet you,” I told her, trying to seem enthusiastic though I was ill at ease. I tried the doorknob again, but drew my hand away from the knob. The metal had become very cold. In fact, the room itself was growing very cold. I shuddered, rubbing my arms. There were no noticeable vents for air conditioning, yet the temperature in the room was dropping at an abnormal rate. How was this girl, in this dress, not feeling the temperature change? The boy seemed to be immune to the change as well, although he was dressed in a thicker long sleeve shirt.
“What are you reading?” I asked Charles. I had tried gleaning a peek of the title from the reverse image in the mirror, but could not make out the book’s cover.
“A manual,” he said.
“A manual for what?” I asked. “You look like you’re in school. Do you go to college somewhere?”
“Papa has me read,” Charles said. “He helps me learn.”
They must be homeschooled, I realized. Maybe Victoria was as well. However, that did not seem to be the right word to describe the two children’s odd manner.
“What about your Mother?” I asked the children, trying to figure out something else to say. “Is your mother here with Papa?”
“Oh she is not with Papa,” Charles said as he turned the page. “But she is here.”
That gave me chills. It could have been an innocent statement, but in my growing paranoid state… I looked around the room, trying to stop any thoughts creeping into my mind.
The door knob turned, and I jumped. Victoria’s eyes were wide, and even Charles looked up from the page into the mirror.
It was the husband of the couple from check in that came walking through the door. He seemed to come bumbling, looking head down the same way that I had come through the door. I came to say something, but a chill went through the room that rendered me speechless.
He closed the door, and looked up at the three of us in the room.
“Oh, man, my bad, I must’ve had the wrong room,” he said. He paused, recognizing me, and offered his hand. “You were the guy in the lobby at check in weren’t you? Sorry for not introducing ourselves back there. My name’s Steve, and my wife was Meredith.”
“John,” I replied, shaking his hand.
“Good to meet you,” he said. He looked at the two children. “I didn’t realize you had kids. Didn’t you come alone?”
I shook my head. “I thought this was the bathroom and came in here by mistake. The door was stuck when I tried to make my way back out.”
“It seemed to work fine for me,” Steve said. He eyed the two children and back at me, where he stuck up his eyebrows. I made introductions for him to the children, but I gave Steve an expression on my face that said “Mmmmhmmm.”
“Are you children here by yourselves?” Steve asked.
“We are waiting for Papa,” said Charles. Steve asked a few more of the same questions I had, rehashing the conversation that had just taken place I shifted uncomfortably in place as I listened.
“Well then, it was nice to meet you, but I think that I’m going to get back to my wife,” Steve said, waving to the three of us. He went to open the doorknob, and I was about to say something.
But the door swung clean open, as if there were nothing wrong with the doorknob.
“Are you staying till their Papa gets back?” asked Steve. My eyebrows raised, I immediately made my way to the door.
A sound made me look around though. Victoria had fallen off the bed, and was holding her knee and beginning to cry. Though I shouldn’t have, I turned around to see the injured girl. I looked over at Charles, who moved not a finger, even though his sibling was clearly hurt.
And quite miraculously, against all better judgement, I went to help the girl.
A voice inside me told me no. Screamed for me to turn the other way and ran.
But that voice was jerked away, silenced, muffled, by something. It were as if I were a puppet on strings I went to attend to Victoria.
“Are you ok?” I asked her as I rolled her upright. She sobbed slightly, as children do, and I helped her up on the bed again. She nodded, and I rubbed her knee, assuring her that it was alright.
Why did I do that? I thought in the back of my mind. I had no connection to this girl, quite the opposite, but I had gone to her like she were my own daughter. What had happened to me?
I looked up when I knew she was alright, looking towards the doorway. I was certain Steve had left the door open— there had been no sound of it clicking shut on the frame— but the door had somehow closed on his way out. I looked at the door somewhere between horrified and tears.
“Victoria, listen,” I told her. I had to make up some believable lie that would maybe, just maybe, magically grant me an exit out of this creepy room. “I’ll leave you here, but I will be back. How about I go get an ice pack or something from the front desk or the kitchen for your knee?” The girl nodded, looking brightly at me. Her sobs had quieted.
I began to walk out the door, a glimmer of hope entering my chest. There was a confidence in me that this would work, be my way out, going to help the girl….
I twisted the handle, and it responded. But the door did not open.
“Is it not opening?” Charles asked, licking his finger as he flipped the page. The words carried not a hint of concern.
“Why won’t this door open!” I exclaimed, pulling as hard as I could. I knocked on the door. Steve couldn’t have gotten that far, surely he would hear me…. “Steve! Are you there? You need to open the door for me!”
Silence. There was nothing, no response, no sounds, not even footsteps coming from either side of the hallway.
My fist slid down the door, utterly confused and defeated and aggravated all at the same time. I was trapped in here, with these creepy children that I did not know, in a room that made me extremely uncomfortable.
“Papa will be back soon,” Victoria said, in a voice so smooth that gave no indication she had been crying only a moment before. “He will open the door.”
I didn’t want to know what would happen when Papa got back. I did not want to know. I began to pound on the door again.
“Somebody! Open the door!” I pleaded, sobbing as I knocked hard. I could hear people walking through the hallway again, but none of the footsteps seemed to stop despite my cries. “Let me out! Please, someone open the door, just please, let— me— out!”
The doorknob twisted, and I was in shock as the door was suddenly wide open before me My cries immediately stopped as I saw who opened the door.
It was the man at the front desk, still in his crisp outfit, with the bowtie straight and the wire framed glasses. His blue suit jacket hung across his shoulders, on top of a crisp white shirt and a red tie. I had not seen from my side of the check in, but the man’s tan kahki pants were well pressed.
The face though terrified me. Something was not right. This was the check in clerk, but there was, despite the wide smile, a shadow across his face. Under the light of the lobby he appeared normal, but in the doorway it seemed as if this were a caricature of that man. There was a friendly smile upon his face, but there was something about the love in his eyes that made me want to scream.
This was Papa.
“Victoria, honey, what did I tell you about making noise in your room?” the man said as he leaned over the girl on the bed. His voice was smooth and warm, which frightened me. He seemed to not have come in here in response to my knocking.
“I know, Papa, and I am sorry,” she sobbed. “But please, I just want to be let out of my room. I’m sorry for what I did, I will be a good girl from now on, I promise—“
“You know I can’t let you out,” the man said with a tsk tsk. “You were a bad girl, you didn’t clean up after yourself. Bad girls who don’t listen to their Papas have to be punished. You have to stay in your room.”
“But Papa,” she said. “I’ve been here forever. I’ve been good in here, just like you asked. I’ll do anything, please anything you say if you let me out of the room.”
“She’s even been good for Mama while you were gone,” Charles said, not looking up from the page in his book.
I froze. The way Charles had just said that… it was as if Mama had been in the room with us the whole time.
“You promise, Victoria darling?” the man named Papa asked. “You promise you were good for Mama, and that you will clean up after yourself from now on?” The girl nodded.
“Anything you ask, Papa,” she nodded, wiping her eyes. Her gaze then connected with mine, and a sense of dread suddenly filled me.
“He can stay in the room for me.”
Papa suddenly looked at me, and dread turned to screaming fear.
“Him?” Papa asked as he looked me over as I stood next to the wall by the doorway. I looked down to see my toothbrush in hand. I was shaking, terrified. “Hmm, yes, maybe he will do. Very well then. If you keep him in the room, you may leave, darling.”
I could not move until Papa passed me, and he walked out down the hall, humming happily. I did not dare look at the girl, but instead rushed for the doorway. My hand grabbed the edge of the doorway, and then something from inside the room grabbed me.
It was not the hands of a little girl, or those of a late teen boy. Something wrapped slender fingers around my shoulder, fingers that were definitely not human. At the same time, another hand wrapped around my midsection. A third and forth hand joined them, until my whole torso was being pulled back. I fought, trying to run, but more of the same fingers wrapped themselves around my legs.
I tried to scream, but no sound escaped my lips. Nevertheless, I kept yelling, screaming, hoping anyone in the hall would hear me and come rushing in. Whatever was pulling me sat me down on the bed, running its fingers along my body. Even though I could feel it, whatever pulling me back was invisible. I felt a finger put up to my lips, as if to shush me, and then suddenly I could not utter a word.
I listened, wide eyed and quiet, to Victoria as she hummed happily, just like Papa. She hopped off the bed and walked around, before skipping out the door.
The door closed behind her, and suddenly the room was quiet.
Charles sat at the desk, and turned another page in his book.