Vacancy

by J.M. Anderson

 

The fog was crawling in when they heard the scream. It wavered for a few seconds then become echoes, then became silence. Krista checked her watch. 9:45. She turned to David. “Did you get that?”

David was wearing big headphones and a light windbreaker, pretending not to be cold or a little shaken. Krista wore a sweater and jeans and was cold and scared and hid both well. David rewound the tape in the recorder strapped around his shoulder; the whirring noise was the only noise around them. He finally hit play and heard the ghost (or whatever it was) scream and he didn’t like it any better the second time.

Krista motioned for the headphones and as always she got what she wanted. She listened to some woman’s scream, the sound of someone dying, that came from God knew where, out of the fog somewhere.

“What’s she saying?” asked Krista.

“I don’t know,” said David. “Let’s figure it out in the car. Down the road somewhere.”

* * * * *

Soon they were in their rented Ford and the cemetery was still in the mirror when Krista said, “‘These guys.’ I think she’s saying “‘These something guys.’” She pecked the rewind button again. “Or maybe ‘Please something guys.’” They were farther from the cemetery now. The countryside flew past them. “David, slow down.” David’s eyes were locked on the lights up ahead. Civilization. She put her hand on his and he slowed.

“Sweet Jesus Christ,” he said.

“What?”

“She’s saying ‘Sweet Jesus Christ’.”

Krista listened to the tape again and in a rare move agreed with David. Then she told him to head for the motel.

* * * * *

Their car crunched into the parking lot of the Pepperidge Motor Court at 10:00 p.m. and even at that hour the motel was noisy with tourists who were looking for a quiet time in the country. The lot was nearly full and kids ran from motel room to car to room again. TVs blared from open windows.

“There’s a spot over there,” Krista said.

David squeezed the car between two SUVs and they got out, creaking on the wooden planks leading to the manager’s office. Krista grabbed David. “This is it,” she said.

Their creaking stopped outside of room 17. David seemed to back away. Krista saw this and smiled. But she hesitated herself before she cupped her hands over her eyes and pressed her face against the window. The curtains weren’t drawn because there was nothing to hide. It was a boring, uninspired motel room with ten-year-old furniture. “Hmm,” she said dismissively.

* * * * *

The office smelled like peanuts and the man’s breath smelled like hot peanuts. “Lucked out,” said Pepperidge, the middle-aged, friendly owner and manager. “Nearly all booked up.” The skinny man turned and reached behind to his nearly empty rack of keys and palmed one. The key to room 18.

“We were looking to rent room 17,” Krista said.

“Oh, I don’t let that room out,” Pepperidge said.

Krista said: “Look, we know the room has a ‘history’. That’s why we’re here. With money.” She reached into her purse and graced the counter with a fifty. “We’ll take our chances. So if room 17 and 18 are adjoining—” started Krista.

“They are,” said Pepperidge.

“Then we’ll take them both,” said Krista.

Pepperidge pulled out a key from a side drawer and took the fifty.

* * * * *

Krista and Pepperidge were outside of room 17. “I take it you folks are some kind of investigators,” Pepperidge offered as he put the key into the lock.

“Something like that,” Krista said. “Working on a book.”

“What do you know?” Pepperidge asked.

“A little,” she said. “We got the gist of it.”

The manager snorted. “You probably got five or six different stories. Well, I was here when it happened.”

David came up the walk with the first batch of Krista’s luggage as Pepperidge opened the door to room 17. The three went in a little cautiously, as if sneaking up on something. Pepperidge turned on the lights. They flickered a little, but finally stayed on. He crossed the room and opened the window, letting the crisp night air seep in.

“Like I said, I don’t let this room out…” He looked out into the fog. “This is the thickest I’ve seen it in years.”

“So what happened that night?” Krista asked.

“Forty-two years ago,” the old manager muttered. He looked out, lost in the fog. “Nate McKee… You never would have thought… I mean, not him…” Then Pepperidge remembered he was telling a story. “My parents ran the motel back then. Anyway, I was seventeen the year Nathan McKee killed his wife and two children. He was an attendant at the station on the corner, back when they had full service. Nice guy to know, but one night he drove a stake through the heart of his wife and two kids. Girl and a boy. Girl was nine, the boy was six.”

“Did he say why?” asked Krista.

“Well it came out he’d been on shaky ground for a while. Mentally. Hearing voices and such. Turns out he knocked Jeanie, his wife, around a couple of times, but she never said anything to anybody or the cops swept it under the rug for free gas or whatever. The thing of it was one night he snapped and said the virgin mother came to him and told him the truth. Said the woman he married ten years ago and the kids she bore weren’t really his family, but demons in disguise. The only way to get rid of them was to tie them down and… Well I guess I told you that part. So he did what he thought he had to do, lot of grief in his heart they said, and he left them dead in the two-story home he built three years before.

“He killed one more person after that,” he continued. “A ‘Jane Doe’. Left her buried with a stake in her heart out by the old split tree.”

“What’s that?” asked Krista. “The ‘old split tree’?”

“Down the road from here, quarter-mile. Tree that got hit by lightning long time ago, split in half, kept growing.”

“So what happened to McKee?” asked David. “How many years is he serving? Or did they execute him?”

“Well, we don’t have the death penalty here in Maine,” said Pepperidge. “But it doesn’t matter, because they never found him. Threw himself into the river most likely. But the body never washed up.

“So how does all this tie into the room?” asked Krista.

Pepperidge finally turned away from the fog. “While he was on the run, he stayed in this very room.

“The motel was empty, going through six months of renovations. Anyway, years later, people have heard noises and have seen Nate McKee in room 17. His ghost, I guess. Not that I’ve seen anything. I make a point of cleaning this room on bright, sunny days. Nights like this, with the fog coming in, I’d just as soon have the wife bring the dog in and then crawl into bed with her. The wife, I mean, not the dog.” He looked down at the key in his hand. “Are you sure you want to—”

Krista smiled. “You just talked us into it.”

The old man let himself out. Krista shut and locked the door behind him. She turned to David. “Tomorrow we need to find out where the old McKee house is…”

“Krista…”

“Dave, don’t start. Not now.”

“For the past three weeks, we’ve been trampling over graveyards, hanging around morgues—”

“And coming up with nothing. Now we finally have something to grab onto and you want to back out? Dave, I’m afraid you’re afraid.”

“Well, maybe being afraid comes with having some kind of respect for the dead. I can’t do this anymore.”

“And what are you going to do? Who’s been supporting you for the past year? Who paid the bills when you spent nine months locked in the bedroom making bad techno music that never made a dime? Who smiled while you ran all over the state playing wanna-be-30-year-old DJ?”

Someone in room 16 pounded on the paper-thin walls. “We can do this in the morning,” said David.

“And now when I need your help,” she continued, “now when I have a chance to do something, when I need you to stand by some graves and hold a microphone, all I get is regret.” She mimicked him, adjusting imaginary glasses on her nose, “Krista, you’re pushing too hard; Krista, we should slow down…”

David moved toward the adjoining room. “I think I’ll sleep in here tonight,” he said. He wasn’t going to feed her anger; she did such a good job of it herself.

“You don’t get off that easy—” But Dave entered room 18 and closed the door. Krista snorted then took a deep breath. She crossed the room and slammed the window shut and threw open her suitcase, fishing for something to sleep in, ready to spend a sleepless night fuming.

Then she saw it. The box. She opened it.

Inside was something she recognized, saw it a week ago in that little shop in Salem. Little stupid pendant. A cartoon ghost. Saying “boo”. It was so corny, it was so him. It forced her to smile and some of her anger fell away. She looked at the adjoining door to room 18 and felt ashamed.

“Dave…”

No answer. Krista knocked gently.

“Baby, don’t sulk. I like your music. It’s just all this running around, late nights at hospitals and accident scenes and finding nothing… It just makes me crazy. I want this so bad… And I want it for both of us. Dave, talk to me… I said I was sorry. I know I keep saying that—”

Krista heard a noise and turned away from the door. It was coming from the bathroom. Her bathroom. Kling. Like metal hitting porcelain. Then the water was running.

“Hello?” It caught in her throat.

The water stopped running. The room, everything, was too silent. Then the lights flickered a little and a little more and then they went out. “Hello?” she said again, lower this time. Krista tried the light switch but nothing happened. Now everything was too quiet and too dark.

“Who’s in there?” She headed toward the bathroom.

But the door opened before she got there.

Silhouetted behind the glazed bathroom window was a man. The man looked out into the bedroom and the bed, the nightstand, the woman… The man didn’t understand. What was left of his mind was racing.

Krista backed up toward the door to the adjoining room, toward room 18, toward David. The man came out of the bathroom, slowly, unsure of every step. In the moonlight she saw he was in his early thirties, but only after she saw the blood on his shirt. She also saw the name patch stitched into his workshirt.

“Nathan,” she said. “Nathan McKee?”

The sound of his own name didn’t soothe him. He clenched his teeth. He dropped the rag he was drying his hands with.

“How do you know my name?” more exasperated than inquisitive. He advanced on her, still unsteady and she put her back up against the door to room 18.

“Nathan, you can’t hurt me,” she said, forcing herself to be calm. “You’re dead, Nathan.”

“What?”

“You threw yourself in the river. Forty-four years ago. After you killed your family.”

He threw his hands over his ears as if that could make it all go away.

“You’re a ghost and you don’t know it.”

Nathan McKee looked confused, considering all of this. “No…” he exhaled, weary.

“Yes,” Krista said.

“This… this is all wrong. Where am I?”

“You’re dead, Nathan. I guess… I guess I’m here to help you move on.”

He advanced, closer to her now and she smelled the sweat and musk and oil on this “dead man”, this ghost. Nathan shook his head at her.

“You’re one of them,” he said. “Sent by Satan. I’m not dead.”

And he grabbed her and she knew he was right, he wasn’t dead, she could admit for once in her life that she was wrong because a hand had her wrist and the other dug into her throat. She brought a knee up hard into his groin. The “specter” groaned and Krista stabbed out and grabbed an unlit lamp and slammed it over his head as hard as she could and didn’t kill him only because the plug snagged a little behind the table.

Nathan fell back bleeding and she told herself ghosts don’t bleed. Before he hit the floor, she was whacking the door to room 18, calling for Dave. Then she threw her 135 pounds against the door, grateful that she put on (just a little) weight eating crap food on the road and she slammed into the door again.

Desperate now. Again.

Finally the flimsy motel lock gave. And Krista staggered into room 18.

There was a lump in the pit of her stomach; her soul seized.

She was looking into the room and she was faced with nothing. The absence of suitcases, of the bed, of the furniture.

Of David.

The room was barren except for a scattering of loose plywood and paint cans in a corner. Uncurtained windows stared out at the infinite fog.

“Dave?”

She ran through the doorless front door and out into the parking lot. “Please, somebody—”

Then the lump in her stomach fell and kept falling.

Desolation. Silence. Not a single car, not an SUV in sight. Just covered plywood stacked along the wall. She looked around for help. It came in the form of sign on a pole barely visible in the mist:

Pepperidge Inn — Closed for Renovations — Re-Opening May 1961.

The sign in the mist was the last thing she saw before Nathan McKee fractured the back of her skull with a rusted shovel.

* * * * *

Krista awoke in pain but the first thing she wondered was what was that noise. It was a familiar sound, not a pleasant sound. Even through the pain in her head she thought it was not a sound you’d hope to hear or want to hear or—

Then she placed it. It was the sound of digging. The sound of a shovel moving wet dirt.

The next thing she realized was that she was on her back. In the dirt. Her hands were tied behind her back.

She looked up at the mist that hovered above the ground and was looking at a tree, an ugly tree. Black, or blackened. The sound of digging stopped and she realized that was worse than the sound of digging starting.

To her left Nathan McKee pulled himself out of a shallow grave. She struggled but he had tied her hands tight behind her.

“Please…” It was low, so maybe he didn’t hear her. “Please.” Louder this time. “Don’t do this.”

Nathan was out of the hole now. He looked over and saw the dawning panic in her eyes and she saw the deadness in his.

“Help!”

“Scream your head off. No one can hear you, demon.”

“Oh, God, oh. God.” Gasping. She looked up and he was standing over her.

“How dare you call on God?” He lowered himself, straddling her, kneeling over her.

As she continued gasping the Lord’s name, his dirty hand parted the tall wet grass near the tree and when she saw his hand again it held a ten-inch wooden stake.

Her eyes shut and she struggled underneath him but Nathan steadied her by putting his knee on her shoulder and all his weight on the knee.

“This isn’t happening,” she thought aloud.

Then his hand wandered nearby and he had a heavy hammer in his fist.

“I don’t belong here…”

He shoved the stake underneath her left breast. Flesh was broken.

She screamed and said “Oh, God, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”

The hammer rose into the air over her.

“I’m sorry—”

And it came down like—

“Sweet Jesus Christ!”

* * * * *

David was brushing his teeth and stopped in mid-stroke when he heard the scream again. The same one from the graveyard. Louder this time. Closer. Then the scream became echoes, then became silence.

“Krista?”

Forty seconds later he opened the adjoining door to room 17, wiping his mouth with a towel. No sign of Krista, just a broken lamp, which was weird, he thought, because he never heard it break.

A few minutes later he was outside in the thinning fog among the half-clad or robe-clutching motel guests who also thought they heard a scream or something. He asked questions, but they knew as much as he did.

Then David strayed from the Pepperidge Motor Inn, deeper into the now-clearing fog and called for Krista and kept calling. No one ever answered.

For an instant he thought he saw a man underneath a tree patting down dirt with the flat side of a shovel.

But the fog lifted and the man was gone.

* * * * *

David never learned what happened to Krista and he never forgave her for walking out on him in the middle of the night, but song #3 on his last demo was dedicated to her.

 

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