Room 371. Some hotel near the Cape. I was on a business trip with my boss, closing in on the final set of investors we needed to launch our latest start-up. That’s all I could remember. Then this. Waking up in a bedroom next to an unfamiliar woman with a literal set of credits appearing and disappearing in front of me, suspended in the air. How very strange.
What was that? A laugh reel? Or a studio audience? Wait… is my inner dialogue… not so inner after all?
[MORE LAUGHTER FROM AUDIENCE]
Just then, the woman to my right woke up and placed her arm over my chest.
“Hey, hon. How’d you sleep?”
This was a dream, right? Had to be. I fell asleep in my hotel room and some program on TV was leaking in, creating the setting. I just don’t remember going to bed. And I never sleep with the TV on, not even at home.
“Uhhh… not so good… hon.”
[FAINT LAUGHTER FROM AUDIENCE]
“Aww, what’s the matter, wake up on the wrong side of the bed?”
“No, not really. It feels like I woke up in the wrong bed all together.”
[BOISTEROUS LAUGHTER FROM AUDIENCE]
The scene faded and reconstituted into a dining room where I was now seated with my… dream wife? We were eating omelets. I now had the Sunday paper in hand, though I couldn’t make out a single image or word. It was a jumbled mess of black and white lines. No text at all, from what I could tell.
The unfamiliar woman spoke up.
“You know, Hank…”
“Hank? Who’s Hank?”
“Very funny. As I was saying… I really don’t appreciate being ignored when we’re at the table. You’re always buried in that damn paper. Would it kill you to look at me every once and a while, ask me how I’m doing for a change? I’m your wife for crying out loud.”
“You mean this paper?”
I gestured towards the messy collection of illegible marks in front of me.
“It’s nothing but black lines! I’m not reading anything!”
“Are you kidding me? You’ve been sitting there with a fake paper just to avoid talking to your own wife?! I cook the meals, clean the house, walk the damn dog…”
“We have a dog?”
[FAINT LAUGHTER FROM AUDIENCE]
“All I ask for is some appreciation! Anything to let me know I mean something to you!”
“Don’t you look, hon me! Gosh, you make me so angry, I could just… just…”
She picked up her fork and walked over to me, a look of pure rage painted on her face. She then lifted the fork back and plunged it down into my hand – the one holding the paper – effectively pinning it to the table.
[GASPS FROM AUDIENCE]
“Try lifting your precious paper to read it now!”
The pain. It was immense. A shock wave resonated throughout my entire body. Then, there was blood, oozing out of the holes in my hand and forming a dark red pool that dripped off of the table and into my lap. This was no dream. It was all too real.
My sitcom wife was still seeing red. She raced into the kitchen and came back with a cleaver in hand, all the while I screamed and sobbed over the damage my hand had sustained. I quickly pulled the fork out, tossed it at her, and bolted upstairs before she could get to me.
The scene faded again. Next thing I knew, I was locked in a bathroom, the sound of thunderous banging coming from the other side of the door.
“Hank, sweety, you can’t stay in there all day!”
I searched for a way out, but there were no windows.
Think, Jack. Think.
Without warning, an ax crashed through the wood of the door, the unhinged expression of an angered woman visible through the shrapnel.
“Oh, Jainy, so that’s your name. It’s lovely to meet you. I’m Jack.”
[FAINT LAUGHTER FROM AUDIENCE]
“Nice try, Hank. No more psychological warfare. I’ve had enough of your head games to last a lifetime. We end this now, once and for all!”
I expected more audience reactions, but there were none. From this point forward, they were silent. Nothing but the unsettling sound of metal meeting wood as Jainy tore through the door to get to me.
As I looked around at the cheap, hollywood wallpaper, something hit me. It didn’t look quite right – quite real, in fact.
“Is this… a set?” I wondered.
I jabbed one of the walls and my hand went clean through.
Well I’ll be damned.
Without a moment’s hesitation, I busted out of there and walked off set, right past the studio audience and camera crew. The exit was in view; a black door with a large sign illuminated above it:
LEAVE IF YOU DARE, JACK
Just as I was about to close the gap, a man appeared before me. Clean-cut, mid-50s, maybe; gray hair, gray mustache. He was grinning from ear to ear.
“Not so fast, Jack. Did you think it would be that easy?”
“Who the hell are you?”
He let out a slight grunt, clearly insulted by my query.
“You are in no position to ask questions. But, if you must know, you’re in my room.”
“Your room?” I asked, completely confused.
“Think, Jack! Room 371, the hotel? Ringing any bells?”
Some memories flashed in my mind. My boss and I were at a hotel, of which I now remembered the name. It was the Covenwood Inn. And this man standing before me… he was there too. I walked by him on my way to my room. He tipped his hat and mumbled something to me. What was it… “enjoy your stay,” perhaps?
“You were there, at the hotel.”
“Now you’re getting it, Jack. I’m always there. Anything else come to mind?”
I remembered the door and the number 371 affixed to its plaque, but I couldn’t recall entering it or what happened next. Something else happened, but the memories were just out of reach.
“It’ll come to you, Jack. For now, there’s no escaping. You are my prisoner.”
With that, the man vanished, and so to did the exit door. I swung around to make a run in the opposite direction, but it was too late. The studio audience was no longer seated. They had me surrounded, and the film crew now had their cameras pointed at me as the director yelled out overhead.
“…and … ACTION!”
The audience closed in on me with mouths wide open, their laughter echoing through the building. Their eyes were glazed over and their arms resting at their sides as they marched to me. It was a sickening sight.
And then, just as I thought I was a goner, the scene faded, transitioning me to another location. I felt myself drifting as the view grew dimmer; collapsing into unconsciousness. I attempted to fight it, but it was no use. Whatever was putting me under had a vicious hold over me. As I slipped away, I heard the man’s voice ringing in my ears.
“WAKE UP, JACK!”
My eyes opened and the transition was complete. I awoke at home, in bed, next to my real wife, Charlotte. She rolled over and gently caressed her arm across my chest.
“How’d you sleep, hon?”
I smiled, captivated by her as the sun washed over our room.
“Just fine, hon. Just fine.”
Thank God. It was all a dream.
We got up out of bed and met downstairs at the dining room table. I whipped up some of my famous french toast. We ate and then talked for hours. It was a perfect day. I hoped it would never end. Unfortunately for me, nothing lasts forever.
“Hey, I want to show you something! Wait right here.”
Charlotte left the room and went upstairs. A few minutes later, she came back down and plopped a dead body on the table in front of me. It was Leslie, our daughter.
I stood up and backed away.
“Charlotte, what are you doing?”
“Leslie’s dead, Jack.”
Laughter? That could only mean…
Oh no. I didn’t wake up. I’m still here.
The walls came crashing down around me. The floodgates opened, and I remembered. Leslie was in fact dead. She had died just a few months previous. Our beautiful daughter was ripped away from us, and it was all my fault.
“You did this, Jack. You and your damn job. How hard is it for a father to pick up his own daughter from school? How could you have been so sidetracked?”
It was true. I was always wrapped up in work. On the day in question, I was on an important phone call and lost track of time. Charlotte was at her job and I was supposed to pick Leslie up. She wound up walking home and was struck by a car before even reaching the halfway point. She was dead on impact. My little girl. Struck like a common animal on the side of the road.
Leslie’s corpse sat up and stared at me.
“How could you forget me, Daddy?”
Her cold, dead fingers reached for my neck and started squeezing the air from my lungs. I pushed her away and her body turned to ash as it hit the floor, leaving just me and Charlotte. I wasn’t any safer.
Charlotte pulled a knife out from behind her back and took a swing, grazing my cheek.
[CHEERING FROM AUDIENCE]
“Charlotte, put the knife down, please!”
“I can’t, Jack. I blame you. I have all this anger and sadness and nothing to do with it. It’s all because of you. I can’t take it anymore, Jack. I just can’t.”
A flood of tears rolled down her face as she began hysterically crying. She swung again and I grabbed her arm.
“Charlotte, please! I love you. We can get through this. I’ll find you some help and we’ll-“
Somewhere in the struggle, without realizing it, I had inadvertently pushed the blade into her stomach. The blood poured out faster than her tears had.
[GASPS FROM AUDIENCE]
Charlotte fell to her knees and then collapsed on the floor. The life quickly left her eyes as she offered me a final sentiment.
“I’ll see her, Jack. I’ll finally see our daughter again.”
[AWW FROM AUDIENCE]
That was it. She died. Aside from the re-animated corpse, that’s how it all actually happened. Charlotte blamed me and wanted to see me pay for our daughter’s death. In a way, I guess I did. After that, I was alone. Utterly and hopelessly alone with the memory of killing my family.
The scene faded one last time, revealing Room 371 at the Covenwood Inn, the clean-cut man standing before me, another smile on his face.
“Well, Jack. Do you remember now?”
I did remember. There was no business trip. That was more than likely just a fabrication of my brain to make sense of why I was there in the first place. In actuality, I was at the hotel to kill myself.
“Yes, I think I do…”
“Take a minute, Jack. Do you remember how we met?”
I met him in the hallway on the way to my room. He said he could bring them back. Knew things about our life that no one could possibly know. All I had to do was cross the threshold into Room 371 and it would be done. I was a drunk mess, but how could I turn him down? He did warn me there would be a terrible price to pay, but I didn’t care. I was ready to end my life, after all. I agreed and we went our separate ways. The last thing he said was, “Enjoy your stay.”
“I do. I remember everything – but what just happened here? Was any of that real?”
He pointed down at my hand which I had just then noticed was hurting. I saw the four puncture wounds from where Jainy’s fork scathed me.
“It was very real, Jack. You struck a deal and held up your end of the bargain. By entering this room, you agreed to my terms and gave me something I needed. Now, I will bring your precious family back to you, as promised.”
I still didn’t quite understand and he could tell.
“It wasn’t chance that our paths crossed, Jack. This is my room – it’s where I make all of my deals. It draws in those with the deepest despair, compelling them to take their lives within. That’s where I come in. I saved you… in a sense.”
Saved me? Is that what he called it?
“You, Jack, a man with nothing to live for, have just signed away your life to me. What you just experienced was a down payment. I wiped your memory and made you relive your worst experience as though it were happening for the first time – in my fun little way, of course. You see, this room is my own personal torture chamber. It’s where I pull apart souls through physical and psychological torment. With every wound endured, small bits of the soul’s aura fall off and are absorbed by yours truly – the little pieces that make up who you are. By the time I’m done, what’s left is no longer human, and I’m revitalized. It’s what keeps me young.”
“So that’s it? You’re done, right? It’s all over?”
The man laughed.
“No, Jack. That was just a down payment. At some point in the near future, I will show up to collect. Then you and your family will live here for what will feel like an eternity. This will be your new home.”
My heart sank when I realized what he was saying.
“Wait a minute, what do you mean my family?”
“You wanted them back, and you’ll get them… for a while. Then, you’re all mine. That’s the price. When I have all three of you, I’m sure I’ll think of even more creative ways to poke and prod you. I bet you wish life was as simple as some sitcom right about about now, don’t you, Jack?”
My breathing became labored and sporadic and my heart began pounding out of my chest.
What have I done?
“Calm down, Jack. Go home and enjoy your family while you still can.”
The man – or whatever he was – took his leave and walked out of the hotel room, but not before turning back and shooting me one last, terrible grin.
“See you soon, Jack. It was a pleasure doing business with you.”
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WRITTEN BY: Christopher Maxim (Contact • Other Stories • Subreddit)
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