Estimated reading time — 12 minutes
Business trips are dreadfully boring, especially in my line of work. The only good thing about them? Hotels. The tedium of day-to-day dealings bookended with clean towels and a mint on my pillow. If I could live in one, I surely would. There’s just something in the ambiance that soothes my soul, for lack of a better phrase. At least, that’s how I felt until staying at the Covenwood Inn.
It seemed like any other hotel, at first. Typical floor-plan, decorative arrangements, overly-polite check-in clerk. It wasn’t until I received my key card and ventured up to Room 371 that I would notice a dissonance in the layout. Something amiss that broke-up the usual hotel landscape.
In my room, placed deliberately on the bed, was a sheet of paper; restrictions printed on official Covenwood Inn stationery:
Room 371 Guidelines:
1. No television after 9:00pm.
2. Only accept incoming calls on the room phone.
3. Leaving your room between the hours of 10:30pm and 1:30am is strictly forbidden.
4. At least two to an elevator at a time. Never go in alone.
5. No visitors. If there’s a knock at the door, ignore it.
6. The mini bar is for emergencies only.
7. The view is a lie. Don’t trust it.
Enjoy your stay!
This was odd. I had never seen anything like it- not once, in any of the hotels I’d stayed at in the past. Perplexed, I called the front desk for answers.
“All rules are to be followed during your stay.”
The clerk stated this plainly, as if he had uttered it a thousand times before.
“I don’t understand. What emergency would warrant use of the mini bar? Why can’t I watch TV after 9? What does the view is a lie even mean?”
I was offered the same reply, spoken with the same tone as before, not unlike a recording.
“All rules are to be followed during your stay.”
And that was that. No answers. No explanation.
Assuming it was some sort of strange hotel humor I was unfamiliar with, I threw the list on the bedside table and forgot all about it.
Until later that night.
As I laid in bed, watching the 10 o’clock news, something completely out of the ordinary happened. The reporter began scratching at her face. A little at first, but then a lot. Her motions became aggressive and skin began peeling. Blood dripped from the wounds as she continued to relay her report without missing a beat. No one seemed to notice or react to her appearance. Eventually, she froze in place and stared at the camera. Then, a close-up of her face, grotesque and mangled. Her bloodied lips spread apart and offered an ominous sentiment.
“Don’t break the rules, Jack.”
I jumped out of bed, left my room, and ran downstairs. My voice echoed through the lobby as I barged over to the front desk.
“What the hell is going on here?”
The receptionist didn’t so much as blink at my intrusion.
“What can I help you with, Sir?”
“I just watched a news reporter tear apart her own face and tell me- me, personally- to follow your bizarre hotel rules. Is this some kind of sick joke?”
He pointed at the wall clock behind him.
“It’s 10:18 sir. In Room 371, there’s no television past-”
I grabbed him by the collar.
“I don’t appreciate being toyed with. Continue this jest and there will be a call made to the authorities. Mark my words.”
I let go of him and stormed off, his monotone voice trailing off in the distance.
“All rules are to be followed during your stay.”
I returned to my room, shut the TV off, and laid down to sleep, pissed off, but exhausted. Unfortunately for me, my slumber would be short-lived.
I awoke later that night in a fit of sleep paralysis, pinned in place by my own body. At the foot of the bed was a shadowy figure whose features I couldn’t quite make out in the darkness. A warmth overtook the room as it stepped over to my side. My heart began to race.
Closer now, I could see it was a man. Maybe in his 50s. Well dressed, gray mustache. He leaned over me and spoke with a disturbingly unnatural timbre. His voice echoed off the walls and met my ear with an inhuman cadence.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jack. Are you enjoying your stay so far?”
I tried to break free of my chemical restraints, but it was no use.
“Where are my manners? I’m Garrett Covenwood, the owner of this here hotel. I like to greet my guests whenever I can.”
He rested his hand on my arm. There was a stinging sensation where his skin met mine, but I could barely wince in response to the pain.
“Follow the rules, Jack. If you don’t, you’re in for a bumpy ride.”
All at once, the warmth dissipated, and the sound of my cell phone buzzing rendered me fully awake. I jolted to a sitting position, reclaiming my movement. The man was gone and my arm was fine.
Thank God. It was just a nightmare.
I quickly grabbed my phone and answered. It was my boss, Colter.
“Hey Jack, there’s been a change of plans. Need you down in the lobby right away.”
“What- what for?” I asked, somewhat groggily.
“No time to waste. Hurry up.”
I looked at the time. It was 12:36am. I was forbidden to leave my room, according to the damned rules. I called the front desk.
“Listen here. I need to come down to the lobby and meet my boss. I don’t care what your rules say. There better be no weirdness. You hear me?”
The sound of tapping away at a keyboard filled my ear.
“Sir, our records show that your boss, Colter Brumlock, is fast asleep in his room.”
Confusion washed over me.
“In his room asleep? How would you even know that? Are you telling me there’s no one in the lobby waiting for me?”
“No, sir. It’s a slow night. Just me and the fern in the corner.”
I hung up the phone and dialed Colter’s number. After two tones, he picked up.
“This better be good, Jack. I was sleeping.”
“Colter, you didn’t just call a moment ago and ask me to meet you downstairs, did you?”
He let out a groggy sigh.
“Of course not. What are you talking about? Can I go back to bed now?”
Another wave of confusion struck.
“Sure… It was probably a wrong number or something… Sorry to wake you.”
Before hanging up, I asked him one last question.
“Say, you didn’t get a weird list of rules from the hotel, did you?”
“No. Now let me sleep!”
He hung up and I sat there, contemplating things. Honestly, it felt as though I was hanging on to my sanity by a single, fragile thread. I had told myself the images on the TV were the hotel’s doing, but this… This couldn’t be faked. Colter and I had known each other for years. I knew his raspy voice anywhere- better than I knew my own. That was definitely him on the other line, but, at the same time, it couldn’t have been.
It was, by all means, a mystery.
The next day of work came and went. Before long, Colter and I met back at the hotel where we dispersed to our separate rooms. What was once the highlight of any given business trip, was now tainted by uncertainty. For a good, long while, I sat there in bed, still in my dress attire, perusing the list of rules on the bedside table. I couldn’t make sense of them any more than when I’d arrived, but it had become abundantly apparent that something was going on. Something unexplainable. Part of me hoped it was the product of a tired mind, overworked and succumbing to the side effects of exhaustion.
But lies, even the ones we tell ourselves, only stretch so far.
After undressing and climbing beneath the sheets for some much needed rest, there was a knock at the door. Rule #5 came to mind.
No visitors. If there’s a knock at the door, ignore it.
It felt silly, but I did as the rule demanded. Best to act with an air of caution, I thought. Better safe than sorry. The knocking, however, was soon followed by a voice. Colter’s voice.
“Jack, are you in there? Your wife called me. Says she couldn’t get through on your cell. Something happened to Leslie.”
My heart sank. Leslie was our daughter.
I jumped out of bed, ran to the door, and opened it at once. Colter walked in, visibly troubled.
“What’s going on, what happened to Leslie?”
Colter bore a look of deep concern.
“Well… it’s not good news.”
My heart was pounding.
“Out with it, already! What happened? This is my daughter we’re talking about!”
He looked at me, almost teary-eyed.
“Leslie’s dead, Jack.”
All color vanished from the room. What air I had in me left my lungs in a single, labored breath as a steady stream of tears wet my face. Colter put his hand on my shoulder.
“There’s more. Please, sit down.”
I fell to the bed, broken.
“The truth is, Jack, you broke Rule #5. Now I have to hurt you.”
His lips stretched into a wicked grin and his body froze. He was as still as a statue.
“Colter… I don’t understand.”
In a flash, his hands lunged and connected with my neck. With a viciously tight grip, he began squeezing the air out of my lungs. I tried to fight back, but his strength was overwhelming. I managed to get in a few jabs to his head, but it didn’t seem to have any effect whatsoever. He forced me to the floor and continued to clench my throat, until finally, I lost consciousness. In that moment, I truly thought I was a goner.
I awoke in bed the next morning, alive and well. I quickly reached for my phone and noticed a text from Charlotte.
Just put Leslie on the bus. She misses you terribly. So do I. Please be safe. We love you.
I got out of bed and raced to the bathroom mirror. My neck was void of bruising; no signs of strangulation.
I called Charlotte to be doubly certain. To my relief, Leslie was indeed fine. As alive as she was the day I left. It all just felt so real.
Could it really have been a dream?
Frazzled, I met up with Colter and we drove to our next meeting. I could still feel his hands wrapped around my neck. I refused to make eye contact with him the entire day and he noticed. What could I say without sounding certifiable? Hey, the hotel left me this weird list of rules to follow and now I think I’m seeing things. Want to stop for coffee before you drop me off at the nearest hospital? No, that wouldn’t bode well. Mild food poisoning from the sushi at the hotel bar was a far better excuse.
Only a few more days of torment, then I could leave. That’s what I kept telling myself. Little did I know, my next night there would be the longest one yet.
I awoke at 11:22pm, according to the blinking display of the alarm clock on the desk across the room. As my eyes adjusted, I noticed a faint, orange light dancing on the wall, pouring in through a gap in the curtains. I pulled myself out of bed and walked over to the window to identify the source of the light. What I saw was absolutely horrifying.
The hotel was ablaze, an enormous fire engulfing the ground floor. The flames grew to great heights and touched the glass in front of me before I had the nerve to turn away and make a run for it. In leaving my room, I yelled to warn the other guests.
“Fire! There’s a fire! We need to leave at once!”
No one joined me in the hall. There was no sound at all coming from within any of the other rooms on the floor.
Had everyone already evacuated? Was I the only one inside?
I opened the first door in reach. It was unlocked. Inside was the reporter from TV, her face still dripping red; a blood stain on the carpet below.
“You should have followed the rules, Jack.”
I slammed the door shut and moved on. In the next room was Colter. I watched him strangling a copy of me before his head turned and we locked eyes. He threw my lifeless body to the floor and started running to my position.
“You can’t hide, Jack!”
I closed the door and ran to the next. This room contained yet another impossibility. The worst one yet.
It was my wife and daughter, standing at the door. Their eyes were vacant; drained of all human emotion. I watched, astonished, as their skin burned to a crisp before my eyes. Charlotte spoke first.
“We miss you terribly, Jack.”
Leslie chimed in after.
“When will you be home, Daddy?”
I couldn’t escape them. These horrors were around every corner. In a last-ditch effort to run away from my troubles, I bolted to the nearby elevator. The button was jammed, but I kept pressing it. I looked down the hall to see the reporter, Colter, my wife, and daughter all walking towards me.
“Come on, come on! Work, you piece of crap! Work!”
Finally, the button gave way and the doors opened. I hopped into the metal box and pushed the button for the first floor. The doors closed just as the rag-tag team of zombies closed the gap between us. I slid to the floor, on the verge of a heart attack.
The ride down offered no solace; no lull in the supernatural calamity I faced.
Without warning, the elevator dropped, plunging to the depths of the hotel, far deeper than I thought possible. I gripped the railing as tight as I could as the light wavered in and out of life. In between flickers, Garrett appeared before me.
“You’ve broken almost every rule, Jack. This is what happens. You’ll destroy us all if you’re not careful.”
He vanished. The light left with him. Knowing my death was fast-approaching, I closed my eyes and thought of Charlotte and Leslie. I could see them playing outside in the rain on the day I left. It was always heartbreaking to say goodbye, and this would be no different.
I held on to their memory and braced for impact. As the elevator neared the end of its decent, Garrett’s booming voice entered my mind and broke the trance.
“WAKE UP, JACK!”
Jarred, my eyes opened and I fell back, landing on the floor. The unique abrasiveness of carpet brushed against my skin. I was no longer in the elevator. Upon taking a deep breath and gathering my wits, the familiar surroundings set in. I had inexplicably been transported back to Room 371. As I looked around in disbelief, happy to be alive, I noticed the list in my hand. Rule #7 was now circled.
The view is a lie. Don’t trust it.
It took a minute to register, but I now knew what it meant. The view through the window. There was never any fire. It was just another ploy to get me to leave the room, and I foolishly took the bait.
My eyes darted to the alarm clock on the desk. It was 1:47am, meaning it was now safe to leave. I needed to get the hell out of there, and fast.
I stood up, marched to the door, and grabbed the knob. It was hot to the touch. Burning hot. I pulled my hand back instinctively to avoid the harsh heat. I then noticed the charred wood on the bottom of the door’s frame, indicating fire. Real fire. But how? I thought the view had deceived me.
I looked back to the list for answers and noticed a post script, scribbled in pen.
You should have followed the rules, Jack. You did this. Now we all have to suffer.
My eyes scanned the page for more clues, to no avail. They kept landing on Rule #7. In addition to being circled, it was underlined with a striking, red ink. Why did my attention need to be drawn there? Was it just gloating, or something more?
That’s when it hit me.
I walked over to the window and peered outside. The fire raged on outside my room, but the world below seemed unaffected. No flames, no firefighters, no one running out of the hotel. Just a plain parking lot, traffic on the main road, and trees in the distance. As normal a view as one could hope to expect from this particular vantage point.
But the view was a lie.
I tried opening the window, but an unseen force closed it shut on my fingers. I screamed and pulled them back. In a great deal of agony, I lifted the chair at the desk and threw it against the glass. It shattered, revealing the world outside for what it really was. I saw the fiery wall below and heard the guests screaming in peril. There was indeed a fire. And I truly was in danger.
Still in pain, I picked up the list and looked at Rule #6.
The mini bar is for emergencies only.
This was certainly an emergency.
Without any time to waste, I opened up the mini bar next to the desk. Inside were no drinks or food, only a small black box with a red button affixed to its surface. I pulled it out and placed it on the bed. There was now smoke seeping into the room through the outline of the doorway.
Looking over the list again, there were no further instructions; nothing at all pertaining to the box. There was only one course of action left to take.
I closed my eyes and pressed the button as hard as I could, putting my life in its hands. Memories played in my mind like a film reel running in reverse. The day’s events followed by the previous, and so on. I relived all of the fear and torment in a matter of seconds, until eventually, my eyes opened, and I found myself in line with Colter at the front desk, waiting to check in.
“This place isn’t too shabby, Jack. Better than the last one, at least.”
I can’t explain how, but I was back in the hotel lobby on the first day of the business trip. The day we checked in.
“Say, Jack, what happened to your hands?”
I looked down and saw the bruises left by the window.
“Oh.. It’s nothing. Slammed them in the car door. That’s all.”
“Both of them?”
He was cut off by the check-in clerk, greeting me. I was now at the front of the line.
“Do you have a reservation, Sir?”
I stared at him for a while, remembering everything that had happened. I then backed away from the counter and turned to leave.
“Jack, where are you going?”
“Sorry, Colter. I think I’m going to get an AirBnB instead. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He waved his arms at me, frustrated, and then turned back to book his room. I heard the clerk handing him his key card before I reached the exit.
“Here you are, Sir; Room 371 on the second floor. We hope you enjoy your stay.”
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