Her initial thought, after seeing the inn along the horizon for the first time, was that it was on fire. The setting sun, with its orange haze, was shimmering through the distant tree line. The trees, their tall shapes standing like toy soldiers, were all dressed up with their red and orange and yellow leaves. The light warm wind rustled the branches, causing glints of fire light to sparkle along the ground. The effect was disquieting and she finally lowered her head to shield it. This last day of October was stunning, summer was still hanging on for dear life, and the temperature was warm enough to allow Sarah to leave her car window open. She turned and looked lovingly at Michael, her hand preoccupied, and he smiled at her.
She and Michael loved their weekend trips. They took turns, each of them picking a month and planning where they were going to go and what they were going to do. This weekend, after spending last night in Baltimore, was Michael's and tonight he was going to surprise her with something "different for Halloween". Despite the gorgeous day, so far, it hadn't turned out as he had planned.
"Who did you say gave you the phone number to this place?"
"A fellow standing outside of that Holiday Inn. Keep doing that, Sarah, yes, please."
"Because I tried looking up their website and they don't have one. Who doesn't have a website in this day and age?"
"I'm not sure. The guy I spoke to on the phone seemed nice and the room was cheap, really cheap, actually."
She removed her hand from his throbbing crotch and pointed towards the neon sign. "There's the inn, Michael, right up ahead. See the sign?" She glanced down and saw his length pressing up against his jeans. If she unzipped him, she knew he would spring out like a jack-in-the-box.
"You are such a tease, do you know that?"
"Yes, I do know that. I figure you'll be nice and ready for later, sweetie." She batted her long eye lashes at him seductively and played with her long brown hair.
"You're not playing fair."
This was their game on their trips. They would rub and suck at each other, someone might get off and sometimes they wouldn't. Forty five minutes ago, she got off; Mike had pulled over onto the side of the road and hidden the car in an outcropping of trees. She had climbed in the back and he had eaten her sweetness with her legs pressing up against the front seats. In evil retribution, over the last mile, she had been stroking him over his jeans.
"I always play fair."
"You're wearing that dress tonight, too, aren't you?"
They passed the front of their destination, The Weary Traveler's Inn, and her first impression was how quaint it looked. The Dutch colonial sported a lovely front porch, with two white rocking chairs, a white table with an orange candle, and a scarecrow, with pumpkins and some straw bales. The scarecrow was smiling at her. Behind the house and off in an L, was a larger attached building. The inn was nestled in between two large fields, their yellow and green carpets swaying briskly in the fall wind. A parking arrow led the way and he parked the car, cutting the engine.
"This looks nice enough, Michael, but can you please tell me what happened to our reservation at the Holiday Inn again?"
"I told you. I'm not sure. They couldn't find it. I know I called and made them last month. Everything else in town is sold out."
"Sold out? What's going on around this rinky dink little town? It didn't seem very big to me."
"It's part of the surprise. Come on, let's check-in."
He got out of Michael's BMW X1, his birthday gift to himself last year, and he grabbed their bag from the trunk. Her purse lay in the backseat, its contents strewn about haphazardly and she gathered it up in her arms. Her arms were overloaded and she bumped the seat on the way out and everything spilled out onto ground. A gust of wind came up, scattering the items around, and she froze in horror as she saw her handkerchief, the initials SG, get grabbed by the rough breeze and skitter along the gravel surface, heading towards the inn.
"Quick, Michael, my father's handkerchief! Do you see it over there? Grab it!"
"You know the one with SG on it? My father's! Quick, before the wind blows it away!"
The wind blew strongly again, whipping her hair, and driving bits of gravel across the parking lot. The handkerchief got caught up in the gust, was forced into the air, and it flipping end on end and up and over the Inn's gutter. She watched it bounce along the pitched roof and then it was lifted again until it balanced precariously on the chimney opening. It clung there, its sides flicking rapidly from the strong wind. Then, without warning, it was sucked down the hole.
"Damn it! Oh, I can't believe it, Michael! I never should have taken it with me. I don't know what I was thinking."
"I'm sorry, dear. I can inquire about where that chimney goes once we get inside. Come on, let's check-in."
They walked past the neon sign, "THE WEARY TRAVELERS INN! ESTABLISHED 1952", which was swaying slightly from the breeze. Sarah stopped and glared up at the front of the inn, with its white paint, green shutters, and large front door. Two orange candles flickered in the top front windows, the white curtains pulled shut. It looked like the house was winking at her. Come to think of it, she thought, the eaves looked like a giant eyebrow and the open doorway resembled a large mouth. Sarah didn't like it one bit. She shuttered. Michael walked through the door and she couldn't help but feel that the house had swallowed him whole, like it had her handkerchief.
"Don't be ridiculous, Sarah" she said. She followed Michael in.
Her ears popped and the world sounded hollow. Last time she had felt anything like that was on her flight to visit her parents in Florida six months ago. Chewing a stick of gum had helped and she sure wished she had some now. She rubbed her ears and looked around the lobby. The sign out front had said established in 1952 and the décor hadn't changed much since then. The walls were covered in wood paneling and the ceiling was a stark white. A large, plush red couch and table were stuffed into the corner. An older couple was sitting there, he had his hand on her leg, and they were talking, closely. She thought it odd that there was nothing modern anywhere, no cellphones, no wall mounted televisions, no digital screens, and no computer monitors on the front desk. A payphone was setup by the front door. The front desk was made of oak and looked sturdy and tall. Cigarette ads had been taped to the front, all the women looking sexy while enjoying a cigarette. To Sarah, the ads looked disgusting. There was a little silver desk service bell on the corner. She found Michael chatting with the front desk clerk, who was chewing on the end of a pencil.
"How long you folks planning on staying again? I'm Ray, the front desk man here at the Traveler's."
"Nice to meet you, Ray. We're just staying one night."
"Nice to meet you, Ray. We're just staying one night. Listen, my girlfriend just lost something important. A gust of wind blew her handkerchief down one of your chimney stacks. Is it possible for us to find that chimney to look for it?"
"Shoot, I'm afraid there isn't. That chimney isn't functional. Sealed up. We can't go ripping the walls down. I'm sorry. Look, I'll tell you what I can do though. I can give you our suite. Beautiful room. It's all the way in the back." A song was playing over a tiny speaker in the ceiling "watching the night with me, into the night I cry." and she pressed her ear a little higher towards the ceiling to listen. It was something slow moving and she thought it might be Perry Como but wasn't sure. It was old.
The front desk clerk was watching her. "Isn't this new Perry Como song great?" he said. He was eyeing her up intently.
"Did you say new song?" Sarah asked.
The front desk clerk ignored her, "I hope the suite will do okay then."
"I'm sure it will be fine. Thanks anyway, Ray" Michael said.
The front desk clerk ignored her, "What are you two love birds planning on doing tonight?"
"Well, we're headed to the Halloween festival. That's going on tonight isn't it?" Mike asked.
"Oh yes! That's why people come from hundreds of miles around. The Chesterville Town Halloween Festival is the best one in Maryland, heck the whole U S of A! This year it's even more special. You know why?"
"Actually, I don't." Mike said.
"Halloween on Saturday only comes around once every 6 years or so. Here in Chesterville, we call that the Samhain Hallows Festival. You're in for a real surprise this year! They are lighting the bonfire, there are lots of games, and they'll be telling ghost stories up on the stage. Don't miss it!"
"Michael, you're taking me to a redneck Halloween festival?" she whispered.
He ignored her. "This sounds great! Can we get into our room now?"
Ray didn't answer, his eyes were darting around as if looking for something, and turned and walked through an opening and into the back office. Almost immediately, a door adjacent to the desk opened and a man wearing a Brooklyn Dodgers ball cap came walking out. He was toothless and wore a red and black plaid shirt with old jeans. He was wearing a hotel name badge, Carl.
"I can get those bags for you." Without prompting, he grabbed the bag with his fingertips, the nails long and dirty, and started down the hallway. He made it to the lighthouse painting on the wall, turned right, and vanished from sight.
Ray came back up behind the desk and smiled. "Sorry about that folks, couldn't find the key."
"Hey, some dude named Carl just grabbed our bags. Where is he taking them? We don't even know which room."
"Oh, he's our bell boy. Sorry for the way he's dressed folks, he's a little special in the head, troubled childhood. Rumor has it he killed his mother and father in a fire he set, many years ago. They said he had had enough of his father's hand and his mother's ignorin' it. We don't reckon any of that's true, you'd understand if you talked to him, but I guess you just never know about some people, do ya? Old Carl never did us wrong. He don't know no better."
"No, you sure don't know. So, anyway, which room did you say?"
"Oh right. You're in Room 12. Down the hall, make a right, and it's the last door on the left. Or you can go through the big room, nice little shortcut there, and you can see them setting up for the party later. Hope you're going to be there. Free for all guests. Here are your keys."
Michael grabbed her hand and walked with her. Dual wooden doors had been opened into the lobby and she could see inside the room where a few people were setting up. A large witch mannequin was being hoisted into the center of the room near the stage. Orange and black streamers were being hung from the ceiling and walls. A drum set was being assembled on the stage. A middle-aged woman came walking towards them and she smiled at them gracefully.
"Hello. Are you two staying here tonight? Make sure you stop in here after the festival. We're having a costume party! 10:00 sharp! All the guests and friends in the community are invited! It will be swell!"
"That sounds great ma'am!" Sarah said. Over the lobby speaker, a DJ's voice echoed, talking about the new #1 hit for this week. The theme from Dragnet. New number 1 single? What radio station was this? Something about this inn seemed off. She couldn't put her finger on why but she thought of the front of the hotel and how its eyes winked and its mouth devoured them and how her handkerchief had disappeared. Now, the streaming 1950's radio and how nostalgic everything seemed. That was the only way she could describe that feeling in the pit of her stomach. Something was off. She was starting to like this place less and less.
Michael tugged her hand and she followed him, down the hallway.
She had almost forgotten about her teasing him in the car and Michael was on her the second the door closed behind her. His hands were massaging her perky breasts and he was kissing her. For teasing sake, she reached out and groped him through his jeans, feeling his hard length. He arched himself into her and his hands continued their exploration of her breasts. She removed her mouth and backed up from him.
"I'm sorry, Michael. I want to take a shower. I need to wash off the creeps I've been feeling since we got here."
"Oh, Sarah, let me come with you then."
"No. I love you and I will gladly have you later, but right now, I need to get clean."
Breathlessly, he said, "Okay, okay. I'm being needy. It's what happens when you rub my dick for 10 minutes. Go ahead and shower."
After grabbing her things from the bag, she pulled the bathroom door closed behind her. She undressed, laying her clothes out on the bathroom shelf. The large bathroom mirror looked back at her nakedness and she could see her breasts, more than a handful as Michael would say, and her blue eyes, staring back at her. She smiled at herself in the mirror. She wasn't vein but sometimes it was okay to admire yourself a little, right?
The shower felt good and she took her time, cleaning every inch of her. As she got out of the shower, she grabbed the towel from off the rack and bent over to massage her hair dry with the towel. Immediately, she knew that something was wrong. A putrid smell of decay and death, hit her nose, and caused her belly to clench. She stood back up, the towel wrapping coolly around her head, and she looked into the mirror. She saw the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball cap, the plaid shirt, and the toothless grin. Carl smiled at her.
"Hi." He mouthed noiselessly at her; his finger was perched delicately in front of his lips. "Ssshhh." His hand was holding a lit match. Her arms flew across her breasts and she screamed. The bathroom door flung open and Michael was there. He was saying something to her but she couldn't hear it, all of her attention was focused on the mirror and the man she saw there. She watched Carl step backwards slowly, his image fading through the wall, and then he dissolved out of sight. She fainted.
The BMW was speeding along, the headlights blazing up the roadway. Clouds had rolled in since they had arrived at the Inn. The cold front that was expected tonight was nearly here, the winds had picked up and the air was much chillier.
"You've been acting strangely since we got here, Sarah. What's up with you today?"
"What's up with me? I saw Carl peeping on me in the bathroom!"
"I know, you keep saying that, but when I opened the door, no one was there but you."
"I can't believe you don't believe me."
"It isn't that I don't believe you, there's no evidence of anything. I don't know what to make of it."
She brooded as he drove towards the fair grounds. Strangely enough, her ears were throbbing and sore from popping, again, as she left the Inn. They were on Maryland's eastern shore, some of the flattest land she could think of. Why would her ears be popping? It was another strange thing to add to the list of strange things that had been happening to her ever since they decided to check into The Weary Traveler's Inn.
Maybe Michael was right, maybe the only way to get over the jitters was to get out and enjoy the Halloween festival. Ever since her father's handkerchief was sucked down the chimney, she had been feeling off. Last month, only two days before he died, her father had given her the hand embroidered handkerchief, telling her the story about her mother giving them to him as a gift on their wedding day. He had spent the next 30 years carrying this particular one around with him. Sometimes, when she was alone, she would take it out of her purse and smell it, thinking about him. The odor was dull and mostly lost but she could make out a tiny fragment of what he smelled like when he would pull her tight, call her his little baby girl, and kiss her forehead. Losing the handkerchief had definitely made her melancholy; she couldn't blame herself too much for that.
She had no explanation for why the bellhop, Carl, would show up in her bathroom and then vanish through the wall. When she inquired at the front desk as to his whereabouts, she was told he had gone home for the day. She wanted the police called. Michael told her she was acting crazy.
"GPS tells us we're here, Sarah. You okay now? I'm a little worried about you."
"Yeah, I think I'm fine."
They pulled into the parking lot of what she could only describe as a Halloween Holiday explosion. Eight orange and black circus tents were spread out across a large fenced in area. Orange fencing, with white fabric for cobwebs, surrounded the festival. Ticket takers, dressed as Frankenstein's, were standing at the entrances. Thousands and thousands of orange colored lights lit up the night sky as they dangled from poles and tents. Children were carrying glow sticks and swinging their bags filled with candy. Revelers in costumes were everywhere. There was a man on stilts walking amongst the crowd. He was wearing a tall black and white striped hat and an old tux suit jacket and giving out candy to the children and adults alike. She relaxed a little; this was going to be fun.
An ogre took their money and Frankenstein took their tickets. He green face smiled its white toothed smile and he nodded as they walked by. He lifted his arm and his oversized thumb shot up. Their walking took them down the aisle of carnival games, most with Halloween themes. There was boo bowling, a bean bag toss with witches and demons on the bags, and a red and black plastic cups ball game. Each stand was giving out candy. She wished she had packed a costume. Her red and black striped knit sheath was festive enough and it fit snugly over her small frame and accentuated her breasts. Her black tight leggings highlighted her long legs. She knew why Michael loved it so.
"Michael, I want to hear some ghost stories. Look, up there!"
Ahead on the right, a stage, and a sign proclaiming that you should "Get your Boorific Ghost Stories here!" Someone dressed as a witch was holding a microphone and speaking. "...and that's why you can't go down that road anymore!" By the time they both got there, the witch had stepped down. A cold wind gusted and a chill ran through her.
"Michael, I forgot my sweater back at the Weary Traveler."
The witch, who was standing nearby, interrupted, "I'm sorry, did you say the Weary Traveler?"
"Are you sure of it? The one located on Red Brick Lane?"
"Yes, we checked in there a few hours ago. Why?"
"That's impossible. The Weary Traveler burned down fifty years ago, under very mysterious circumstances no less. Nothing, as far as I know, has been put there since. Come to think of it, nothing has gone up in that part of town in a long, long time."
"Well, I'm pretty sure we read the sign correctly, right, Michael? It's all very 1950's retro. Maybe it was just recently rebuilt?"
The fear she had been harboring all evening came roaring back. A once burned down inn, rebuilt on the same exact spot? Was this new Inn haunted? Is that what has been troubling and scaring her all day?
"Hmm, truthfully, I'm not sure. It has been a long time since I've been out that way. I hadn't heard anything about a rebuild but you had to check into something, right? Well, it was a pleasure speaking to you but I must go." The witch turned and ran off into the crowd, her hat peaking over the tops of the crowd.
"That was weird, huh, honey?" Michael said.
"I told you that there was something weird about that place."
"Maybe its haunted!" he glared at her mockingly.
"That isn't very funny, Michael. I know what I saw in the mirror."
"I'm sure you did. Hey! I'm thirsty, let's get some cider."