Hey, everybody. Today, I’m posting a complete short story. Why? Because I had the idea, and I wanted to give something back. Hope you like it. As always, love to hear your comments and thoughts. And if you have friends who you’d think would enjoy the story, send them over here. The more, the merrier.
Also, the Kickstarter Project is still going, and maybe seeing a short story would get people excited to read more of them from me.
For those of you playing along at home, this story is a sequel (of sorts) to the previous short story I released on the site about a nameless guy who deals with things that go bump in the night. However, he doesn’t do so by fighting them or using magic powers. He is basically a troubleshooter who handles these problems in less flashy ways. Hope you like it because I think he’s got more potential to explore the supernatural and paranormal genre from an unique angle.
Without further ado . . .
If you ran a hotel of any distinction in this town, odds were good you knew who I was. Not every hotel was haunted. Your Motel 6’s, Howard Johnson’s, Best Western’s, etc., they didn’t have the proper mystique. A few had ghosts, but these manifestations were minor. They might knock your deodorant off the bathroom sink or turn on your TV in the middle of the night, but they were easy to ignore. They didn’t become the stuff of urban legends, and nobody told creepy stories of the time that ghost used up the hot water.
To get a real good ghost, you needed certain things. An older building. Or at least a building that looked older. Bad acoustics didn’t hurt either. And if you happened to overlook the sea or have a good view of an old lighthouse, you were pretty much guaranteed to have a ghost or two.
The manager of this particular establishment looked me up and down. He must’ve been new to the job. Too bad. I’d liked the old guy.
“You’re the . . . expert?” he asked.
In that hesitation, he’d no doubt thought of using the word Ghost Buster, but dismissed it as too silly. He also wasn’t sure what to make of me, a guy without a proton pack on my back or a crucifix around my neck. My suit was a bit wrinkled too.
“I’m the guy,” I replied.
The manager was a big guy, once muscular but now past his prime and having some of that muscle slowly turning into fat. He wore little, wire-rimmed glasses and had a tiny mustache I assume he’d grown on a dare.
“Do you have any others with you?” he asked.
“Nope. Just me.”
He sniffed and snorted and squeezed in a scoff as he led me into his office so we could discuss things in private.
“You understand, sir, that I never believed in ghosts before,” he said.
“Very sensible of you,” I replied.
And it was. If you ignored ghosts, most of the time they ignored you in return.
He said, “When I took this job, my predecessor told me the stories of room thirteen. I didn’t believe them of course. Who would?”
“You’d be surprised,” I said. “People like ghost stories.”
He frowned. I could tell the very notion of liking anything offended his sensibilities. He was one of those guys who spent their whole lives quietly disapproving of things. Not a great way to live, but I tried not to judge. He had enough judgment for the both of us.
“Yes, well, my predecessor left your number and told me to call you if the . . . ghost ever got out of hand.” His face twisted. “Is that the right word? Ghost?”
“Good a word as any,” I said.
“Yes, well, is it safe to say you know the story of the Hanged Lady?”
“It’s safe.” I loosened my tie. “Abandoned lover. Suicide. The usual, right?”
“So they say.”
“The details aren’t important,” I said. “The details can always change.”
“Indeed,” he said.
I swear to Yog-Sothoth, he said Indeed, like he was a butler from the 20’s.
“The . . . entity has never been dangerous before,” he explained. “There’s a cold spot in the center of the room we never could get rid of. And guests of the room sometimes reported seeing a figure in white silhouetted against the window when the moon is just right. We had one of those ghost hunting groups stay one time, and they claimed to have recorded some ghostly voices. Sounded like static to me.”
“Always does,” I said. Especially to guys like him, who had probably asphyxiated his imagination at a very young age and then spent his youth sitting in the corner, wondering why none of the other kids liked him.
“Then, a month ago, guests started complaining about being awoken in the middle of night with the sensation of being choked. Didn’t make much of it at the time. Not until Mr. and Mrs. Thatherton . . . expired. A rather lovely couple, both strangled in their sleep.”
I read the look on his face. “Unpleasant business.”
It took all I had to not laugh then. It would’ve been out of place at the moment, and I didn’t want to waste time watching the manager harrumphing in response, which would only make me laugh more.
“Take me to the room,” I said. “I’ll take care of it.”
“Do you need any . . . supplies?” This guy loved his pauses.
“Nope. I’m good.”
He escorted me to room thirteen. Neither of us said a word until we got to the room, where he unlocked it with a keycard. He stood in my way.
“Are you certain this is safe. I would hate to have anything happen to you in there.”
His concern was touching though I assumed it had more to do with the idea of having to explain a new corpse to the cops. I couldn’t honestly blame him. It wasn’t like we were friends, but letting a third guy get strangled would probably earn him a write up or demerit or whatever they gave hotel managers. Little ink stamps with the Monopoly guy dropping his monocle maybe?
“It’s fine. Not my first ghost story.” I undid my tie and handed it to him. Just to be safe. “Give me an hour or two. I’ll let you know when it’s over.”
I entered the room. There was a chill as I crossed the threshold. I didn’t bother pulling my coat tighter. It wasn’t that kind of chill. I closed the door without acknowledging the manager again.
The room was nice. Nothing to get excited about. It had the usual upper class furnishings and amenities. It did have a swell little balcony though and when you opened the doors, the sheer curtains billowed in the breeze like dancing phantoms.
I sat on the couch, turned on the TV, and waited. It took forty minutes for the Hanged Lady to appear.
She first manifested as a dangling shadow stretched across the bed. Creepy, sure, but nothing I hadn’t seen before, so I ignored her. Usually, if you ignored a ghost, they went away. But some ghosts, the strangling people in their sleep kind of ghosts, did the exact opposite.
The TV crackled with static and the room got cold enough that I could see my breath. I shivered, but still acted as if nothing was happening.
It was only when I felt the touch of icy tightness around my throat that I figured the Hanged Lady and I were ready to have our conversation. It wasn’t choking me. Not yet. But it wasn’t pleasant either.
I turned my head so that I could see the balcony from the corner of my eye. It was hard to see ghosts directly, but if you know how to look without looking, they weren’t hard to spot. The secret was to trick yourself into forgetting what you were looking at, to convince yourself that what you were seeing wasn’t unusual. It helped that I had years of experience at this point, and this was just business as usual, even if a part of my brain still wanted to reject and hide from it.
The Hanged Lady was a delicate figure with long white hair and a dress that hung off her like she was a skeleton. Her eyes were black pits. Her throat bore the bright red scars of her death.
I waved to her. “Heya.”
She pointed her finger and spoke with a voice, cold and angry. “This is my room. You do not belong here.”
“That makes two of us,” I said.
“You don’t know the pain I bear.” She floated forward. My throat tightened, but I pretended not to notice. “But you will.”
“Yes. I get it. You’re angry. But if you insist on strangling people, you’re going to have to go.”
She laughed. “My sorrow clings to me like a second skin. Even in death, I have no escape. So I offer death to those who dare trespass. Is death not the ultimate mercy?”
I rolled my eyes. I hated the melodramatic ghosts. I blamed the architecture of this place. Too damn gothic for its own good.
“Let me tell you a story.” I went to the balcony. The Hanged Lady put her ice cold hand on my shoulder as if pondering whether to push me off. She wouldn’t. That wasn’t her schtick.
“There once was a young bride-to-be. Hopeful and full of cheer, she checked into an old hotel and waited for her betrothed. But he never came. Maybe he died. Maybe he ran off with another woman. Maybe she murdered him in his sleep because she went crazy. Could be that. Could be a hundred other reasons. The why isn’t important. It’s incidental.”
She pondered me like a curious thing. Without fear or awe to feed her, the Hanged Lady lost a lot of her punch. She probably wasn’t even aware of it herself.
I continued. “So this bride, she either throws herself off a balcony or jumps into the sea. Locks herself in her room until she starves to death or dies of a broken heart. Maybe she hangs herself.”
The Hanged Lady touched the scars on her throat.
“From then on,” I said, “her spirit dwells in the room, lost forever, trapped, waiting for her lost groom to return to her one day. A day that never comes. And so she waits.”
“That is my story,” she said.
I shrugged. “Sure, it is. It’s your story. It’s the story of a thousand other ghost brides haunting a thousand other hotels. Every hotel with creaky plumbing or thin walls has one. Nobody knows where the story comes from. It’s just something people hear about and share with other people. Everybody loves a good ghost story, right? Doesn’t matter if it’s true. Only matters if it sounds good, if it seems like something that could happen, if it satisfies some archetypical niche in the human psyche.”
I could tell I was losing her.
“I guess what I’m getting at here is that you don’t exist,” I said. “Or rather, you do exist, but you never lived.”
“I know my story,” she said. “I know my pain.”
“Everyone knows your story,” I replied. “That’s how it works. Everyone knows a ghost bride story, a phantom hitchhiker, the little girl trapped in the mirror. But it’s all bullshit. It never happened. You aren’t really a person. You’re a story, a feeling. You aren’t a product of tragedy. You’re a byproduct of the collective imagination.”
I looked deep into her large black eyes.
“Sorry to break it to you like that, but there’s really no good way to tell someone they aren’t real.”
I’d done this plenty of times before, and there was no way to know how a ghost would react to the news. Some spirits, when confronted with their own nature, disappeared without raising a fuss. Others, put up a fight. And some lost their shit.
The Hanged Lady howled like a banshee. An invisible force picked me up and hurled me into the room, pinning me onto the floor, started strangling the life out of me.
For just a moment, I panicked. I couldn’t help it. It was instinctual, flight or fight, the fear of the Great Unknown. It was that fear that gave the Hanged Lady her power. That fear, and the false believe that she was anything more than an imaginary friend gone bad.
“You dare mock my pain!”
She shrieked. The room went dark and became cold as ice.
I sat up, coughing. It wasn’t easy to keep calm when gasping for breath, but I’d had plenty of practice. I’d always been good at finding my center. It was how I ended up with this job.
The air stilled as the Hanged Lady quieted. She pounced on me, wrapping her hands around my throat. Her fingers were cold, but they couldn’t do much more than give a little squeeze.
“Everyone loves the story,” I said, “but sometimes—and I don’t really know why—the story gets out of hand. Instead of being just a little shiver down your spine or a phantom in the dark, the story starts killing people. Which brings us here now.”
I stood, pushing her away as easily as a cloud. The fight had gone out of her. She had the same look on her face that every imaginary lost soul ended up with. She might not have been real, but then again, who the hell knew what was real? Not me. A good story lived on and on, and this one, or a variation of it, would be around long after I was dead.
“What am I?” she asked.
“Let me tell you a story,” I said. “Long ago, a young bride-to-be waited for her handsome groom to come for her. And he did. He came and married her, and they ran off together to live happily ever after.”
The spirit of a striking young man materialized on the balcony. Being a new ghost, he wasn’t formed very well yet, mostly just an outline of hazy white smoke. He reached out his hand to the Hanged Lady, who took it. The scars on her throat disappeared.
“And nobody remembered them, and nobody cared. And after living a perfectly ordinary life, they died, happy but forgotten.”
The No Longer Hanged Lady smiled at me.
“Good luck, kid,” I said.
The ghosts dissolved. The room was cleared. Nobody would be dying in this room. Not for a while yet. Of course, the story would eventually return. It might not be in this room, though the mysterious death of two guests probably meant it would be this room. But maybe not. All it took was a shadow in the wrong place at the wrong time, a bit of unexplained noise in the dead of night, and any place could become haunted.
People loved their ghost stories.