And then I woke up. I was in the hotel again. Light was trying to enter the room via the window, but only half-successfully. I pushed the blanket away from me and sat upright, shuddering at the sight of my own breath rising before my eyes. It was cold again.
I placed my naked feet on the carpet, which offered no warmth to my skin, and walked over to the window. I grunted to myself. Outside was nothing but a wall of impenetrable grey. “Foggy again,” I muttered, with a nod.
Scanning the room, I found my clothes lying messily on the hotel room’s chair. I saw the note on the minifridge door as I pulled my trousers up, but my eyesight wasn’t good enough to read it from where I was. I slipped my t-shirt and jumper on, and then wandered over for a closer look.
The note was torn around the edges and was written in an untidy scrawl. Several drops of blue ink dotted the page. It had been pinned to the fridge by a magnet in the shape of a yellow cartoon dog eating a doughnut. The note read:
“1) Make the beds
2) Empty the bins
3) Don’t look at her
4) Clean the toilets
5) DON’T LISTEN TO HER
6) Make sure all doors are locked
7) Drop off keys at reception”
The instructions sent a pang of recognition through my mind, but like the weather outside, my memories were foggy. I tried to recall what I was doing here. Did I work here? Was that it? It didn’t seem right, but…
I approached the door and looked through the peephole. Unsurprisingly, I saw nothing but grey. My hand went to open the door when I froze. I investigated the peephole again. No. Not just grey. In the distance, something red and yellow appeared to be flickering, but I couldn’t make out what it was through the dense grey.
I opened the door. The fog seemed to seep in slowly, but immediately, whispering along the floor. I could’ve sworn that I heard voices in the swirling soup, but my attention was soon occupied by a laundry cart to the left of my door. I looked to the right and was greeted by a rail, followed by nothingness.
Returning to the cart, I found a ring of old keys sat atop several freshly folded towels. As I picked the ring up, the keys rattled against each other. The sound was dull and muted in the seemingly ever-encroaching fog. I slid the keys into my pocket and pushed the cart forward into the fog.
The cart and I rattled forward a couple of steps until a door appeared on my left. A rusty ‘5’ glinted on the door. I tried the door handle and found that it was unlocked. I began to push the door open and then had the awareness to stop myself. I cleared my throat and knocked on the semi-open door. “Um, hello?” I asked the dark crack between the door and the frame. “Is there anybody in there?” And then I stupidly added, “It’s, er, room service…”
There was no answer. Well, of course there wasn’t. I knew there wouldn’t be. Some part of me just knew there wouldn’t be. I pushed the door open slowly, aware that the fog was starting to pour into the room.
It was empty. The bathroom was also empty. There was, however, a nasty, musty smell that seemed to follow me around inside.
For reasons that seemed to make sense, I began to strip the sheets off the bed. As I immediately pulled the top blanket off, I recoiled in horror. The sheet beneath was coated in a dark, maroon substance. I didn’t want to touch the soiled material, but I felt compelled to complete my task. I retrieved a pair of rubber gloves and a binbag from the laundry cart and hastily stuffed the dirty blankets inside. They felt… crusty. The whole time I tried to convince myself that it wasn’t blood, it wasn’t blood.
The mattress beneath was also stained with the substance, but it was dry. Not knowing what else to do, I quickly threw the clean sheets on the bed. If you didn’t look too closely, you couldn’t see the red shadow beneath the white sheets.
Next, I moved to the bin. I picked it up and upturned it into the binbag I had used for the sheets. No amount of cleaning would be good enough for them, those needed burning. I pretended that I didn’t see the positive pregnancy test as it tumbled out.
Moving faster now, I re-entered the bathroom. The shower looked untouched. I lifted the lid to the toilet expecting the worst, but I was surprised. I threw some bleach around the rim and flushed the thing. It was in working order.
My job done, I returned to the cart outside and locked the door to number 5. I pushed the trolley forward a bit until an entryway appeared out of the mist. I say ‘entryway’ as there was no door, just a black, gaping chasm. Inside, I could see nothing, even when squinting. The previous room had been dark, but I had been able to see. Something here seemed… off.
I took a pillowcase from the cart a dropped it just inside the door. It billowed and fell onto nothing. It lay there, in the darkness, resting as if it had landed on the floor. My body seemed to move of its own accord. I stepped into room number 4.
My feet felt the floor beneath them, but my eyes saw nothing but abyss. I stepped forward further into the room, letting the nothingness envelope me. It wasn’t darkness. There were no shadows. It was just… nothing. I kept walking, eyes swivelling around me, expecting something, anything. The room, if you could call it that, just kept going. Abyssal.
I looked backwards over my shoulder and was alarmed to see that the way I had come in was now just a small rectangle of dark grey. Except that there was a short figure standing in the doorway. I was too far away to see who it was, but my heart caught in my throat, nonetheless. I thought I had been alone.
“Hello?” I asked the silhouette, who immediately span and ran off to the left. I thought I saw a skirt fluttering as the figure pirouetted, but it was too dark too see. As the shadow disappeared, I heard a faint echo in the room. Or it could have been inside my head, I wasn’t too sure. It sounded like a small girl.
“Follow me,” it said. And then it giggled.
I stood there for a moment, frozen, heart pounding. Suspended in the absence of everything. At that point, the thought of the indefinable floor giving way and dropping me into the chasm that surrounded me truly entered my mind for the first time. I ran for the exit.
The drop never came. I hit the balcony rail outside room number 4 clumsily, panting. I stayed that way for a minute, catching my breath. Glancing to the left, I could no longer see the figure. Just the mist.
Looking back over my shoulder, I was startled to see a door were before there had been nothing but black. There was no shiny ‘4’ adorning the cheap lacquer. There was nothing on the door at all, except a round knob that was different to the handle of my own room. I tried twisting it, but it did not move. I gave the door a push and was unsurprised when it did not budge even a little bit.
Stepping backwards from the unsettling room, my foot hit the wheel of the laundry cart. I remembered the list pinned to the minifridge. I looked at the door once more, but there was nothing more here. It didn’t even need locking. I moved on, pushing the cart ahead of me.
I had taken a few steps when I felt the wheels on the furthest edge of the cart leave the level we were currently on. Gravity tugged eagerly at the weighted object and I quickly let go, allowing the wagon to roll down the steps I had been unable to see. I reasoned it was better to let the thing drop than to risk going down with it.
I expected to hear a cacophony as it rolled down the steps; I had no idea how high up we were. Instead, I heard a series of orderly clicks and thuds fading away into the fog.
I looked down. I could see the top three steps, and nothing more. With nothing to lose, I began to descend. The upper story of the hotel disappearing in the grey behind me.
My footsteps sounded loud and awkward in the silence. I know it sounds paranoid, but I couldn’t help but feel that I was giving away my position to some stranger lurking in the shadows.
After a few steps down, I saw tarmac. It turned out I had only been twelve steps high. What was truly curious was the laundry cart. It was sat at the bottom of the steps. It looked as it had before. Not a single sheet or towel had been disturbed. I tried to shake the feeling that it had been waiting for me. I grabbed the bloody thing by the handle and swivelled it around.
“Let’s get this over with,” I said to myself.
The ‘3’ glinted in the fog. I approached it and pushed the door open and then froze. I had not been expecting the sight before me at all.
It was a funeral scene. People were sat in rows either side of a coffin. Nobody looked up as I entered. I could hear a droning voice in the background but couldn’t make out what was being said. It was a deep, male voice. Some religious sermon, I guess.
“Oh, pardon me, I said quietly, I’m just here to—”
I glanced around but could see no bed. There was also no other door that could lead from here to a toilet. Either way, I didn’t want to have to walk through the mourners with their heads bowed, still ignoring me, so I was glad for the excuse to eschew my duties. I also didn’t want to walk past the coffin, which was open. I couldn’t see the face from standing in the doorway, and I didn’t want to either. “Sorry to bother you,” I said, as I gently shut the door. After a moment’s hesitation, I locked it.
My heart was beating hard now. What was this place? Where was I?
I continued forward, until I reached the penultimate hotel room. Door ‘2’ was solidly closed, but from within I could hear the steady sounds of crying. The sound was awful and heart wrenching. Horrific and mournful. Of all the doors so far, this was the one I wanted to open the least.
I knocked once, twice, three times, but there was no reply. Taking a deep breath, I opened the door. Inside, the room looked identical to mine. The only exception was that of a man, sat on the edge of the bed, with his head in his hands. At the sight of him, something happened in my head and in my heart. Did I know this man? Why was he so sad?
“Oh, excuse me sir…?” I asked awkwardly.
The man continued crying.
“Um, sir?” I said walking into the room.
I walked closer to him, slowly, aware of a strange wrongness that was permeating the air.
I placed a hand on his shoulder. There was a caesura in his crying, for the briefest of moments, but then it resumed.
I took a glance at the bed he was sat on. It looked unused. Had he been sitting and crying all night? Well, at least I didn’t have to change the sheets. I decided not to peek into the bathroom and chose to leave the man in peace. As I lifted my hand, I heard the man gasp.
“Are you there?” he asked, swivelling his head around. “Are you there?” His eyes were white and empty.
I bolted out of the room and locked it behind me. I swallowed my saliva and took the steps to room number 1. I left the cart where it was. I felt it was unneeded, now.
As the door came into view, something knotted in my stomach. The door was completely black. As I reached it, the air around me seemed to take a deep breath.
Then I heard a giggle.
“This is my room,” said the child’s voice that existed in my head and in the space around me. “Come on in!” she said. And then she giggled again.
Gooseflesh spread out over my skin, and my stomach twisted. I walked backwards, watching the door. Watching. Watching.
“No, don’t go! No! NO!”
I kept walking, eyes wide, mind racing.
And then I was shrouded in grey, the door out of sight.
I span around, lost in the fog. And then I saw it. The red and yellow I had spotted from my room. I was drawn to the buzzing light. That’s what I was sure it now was – a light.
I walked across the parking lot slowly. In the fog I could hear strange noises that I could put no name too.
The red and yellow pulsations became clearer. It was the sign for the hotel. Or motel. Whatever, I never really did learn the difference. Beneath the sign I could see the shape of a building. I realised that this was the reception where I was supposed to leave the keys. It then dawned on me that I had not locked the door to the final room, but I pushed this thought away. I had to, otherwise I would have gone mad. I dared not think of what else was out in this mist with me.
I kept walking through the denseness, the noises around me growing louder and then lowering with no pattern. Fog was everywhere. Grey and impenetrable.
And then I could see it.
The sign buzzed ahead. It was a garish, neon affair; red on the outside, yellow on the inside. The letters, also red, spelled out…
My mouth went dry.
“No!” I shouted into fog, and all sounds ceased, except for one. A rushing, hurrying, swelling sound that came from every direction. It dawned on me that the fog was dimming. I clutched the ring of keys in both of my hands, and tried to cry out again, but my voice had long gone. A cracked groan escaped my parted lips.
Darkness swam in, hungrily. I felt monstrous hands clutch at me from every direction, and then—
I woke up slowly, groggily. Light was trying to force its way into the room. I pushed back the covers and watched as my warm breath floated away from my mouth, like cigarette smoke.
The room I was in was shabby and drab. I got out of bed and balked at the touch of the cold carpet under my feet. I went to the window and was unsurprised to see a wall of fog. I nodded to myself.
I glanced around the place and spotted my clothes in an untidy bundle on the lonely chair. I grabbed them and dressed myself, eying the note on the minifridge as I did so. It looked slightly different, even from afar. I approached, somewhat cautiously.
The message was ultimately the same, as was the almost-childlike handwriting. It had been pinned to the metal door with the same magnet depicting a cartoon dog eating a doughnut, although one of the dog’s ears was chipped, as if someone had dropped it.
My stomach fell. I was in the hotel again. Again. How many ‘agains’ had there been?
I ran to my door and peered through the peephole. Greyness, with a throbbing red and yellow in the distance.
I threw the door open with a bang and stepped outside. I picked up the keys as I had done before. I threw them over the handrail and into the fog, and then shoved the laundry cart violently away. I heard it clicking neatly down the steps in the distance.
Fragments of torn memories came flying back to me, and yet the fog persisted.
I kicked open the door and ripped the sheets away. Bloodstains. I kicked the bin over. Pregnancy test.
I stormed outside and past the black nothingness of the room that wasn’t a room and down the steps.
I barged the door open and found myself surrounded by mourners, still they ignored me.
I opened the second door more gently, but the man still sat, and still cried. He did not move when I spoke.
I did not go near the last door. The first door. Number one.
I ran towards the neon sign as a voice inside me and around me beckoned me to join them, to come back.
“NO!” I roared, as I ran. “NO!”
The neon came into view once more, the letters unchanged.
“NO!” I repeated, and once more the silence came. Followed by a rushing.
“No,” I cried weakly, my weary voice cracking. “No,” I repeated, as the darkness began to rush towards me like the tide, like a wave crashing down. Clutching, grasping, reaching hands came searching out of the darkness. “No. No. Nononono—”
And then I woke up.
18th January 2019
Written for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest