Estimated reading time — 25 minutes
I stood still for a moment, awestruck. The pictures didn’t do it justice. It was a large but quaint home located on a secluded island near Cape Cod. A small piece of land void of life; only the cottage and a lighthouse visible across the water. Verified as an AirBnB Plus rental, one week’s rent came to a little over $3,000. The price was steep, but completely worth it. This would be the best place to clear my head and finish writing my novel.
I happily trotted across the stone walkway to the front door and grabbed the knob, ready to map out the rest of my book. It would be my second release. My publisher had been breathing down my neck for months, constantly asking for updates. Now, I had the perfect environment to complete it.
Upon opening the door, I was caught off guard.
I nearly jumped out of my skin. There was a man inside. Late 50s, average build, gray mustache. It took me a moment to match the face to the one on his superhost profile. It was Garrett, the owner of the property.
“Sorry, Garrett. You startled me. I didn’t expect anyone to be here.”
“I greet all of my guests. You people are my livelihood, after all. Please, come in. We have some important matters to discuss.”
I joined him in the living room. We sat in armchairs on opposite sides of a long coffee table. Garrett simply continued to smile.
“So… what did you want to discuss?” I asked.
He pulled a folded sheet of paper out from his jacket and slid it across the coffee table. It stopped in front of me. I picked it up for a closer look. The edges were worn and it felt almost canvas-like between my fingers. I began unfolding, but Garrett stopped me.
“Don’t. You’ll have plenty of time for that later. Just listen.”
I looked up at him, confused but compliant.
“This house has been in my family for generations. Staying here can be a rewarding experience, but it can also be a dreadful one, if you’re not careful.”
“Come on, Garrett. Don’t tell me the place is haunted.”
I was the only one smiling now. Garrett looked at me, thoroughly unamused. My smile vanished and I gestured for him to continue.
“On that sheet of paper are some rules. You must follow every last one of them. There are no exceptions. So long as you do this, your vacation will be a pleasant one.”
With that, Garrett stood up from the chair and walked to the front door. He turned to me on his way out and offered a final sentiment before leaving.
“Follow the rules, Jack. If you don’t, you’re in for a bumpy ride.”
When he left, I unfolded the list, expecting to see a reiteration of his stay requirements- no pets, no modifications, clean up after yourself- that sort of thing. This was not the case. On the paper was a set of rules that only served to bookend our strange encounter with further confusion.
1. No lights on past 11:25pm.
2. Do not answer your phone. Callers cannot be trusted.
3. Only two people are permitted inside; Hank Penston and Jessica Covenwood. Ask for last names.
4. Do not exit the house after midnight until sunrise.
5. If your room changes location, close the door and try again. Only leave when connection has been re-established.
6. The voices are harmless. Do not converse with them.
7. Never lock the doors.
8. If you have any trouble, call Jessica Covenwood at this number; ***-0371. This is the only phone call you can trust. This lifeline may only be used once during your rental period.
At the bottom of the page was a final note; I will come to collect you, but only when the rental period is over. Not a moment sooner. There is no leaving until then.
As I sat there mulling over the list, it all became clear. Garrett was a lunatic. Either that, or this was a poor attempt at humor. Either way, I brushed off our meeting and the list of rules all together, placing the paper on the coffee table, where it stayed for the rest of the night.
A majority of the first night was peaceful. Of my novel’s final six chapters that needed completing, I was able to stay up late and finish two of them. First drafts, at least. There was still a lot left to do. My final days on the island would have to be spent proofreading the entire manuscript and filling cracks in the narrative before sending it to my editor. Still, two chapters was not a bad night’s work, all things considered.
After patting myself on the back for a job well done, I looked at my phone. It was 12:18am. My lips spread into a slight smile as I looked at the desk light, wavering in and out of life.
“It’s past 11:25, Garrett. Was this why I needed to turn off the lights? So they wouldn’t flicker?”
I chuckled to myself as another rule came to mind. Number four, if I remembered correctly. Do not exit the house after midnight.
I continued to laugh to myself as I ventured downstairs, opened the front door, and stepped out into the night. The view was brilliant. A blanket of stars covering the Cape, only broken up by the gorgeous lighthouse jutting upward, practically cutting a hole in the night sky. It was a breathtaking sight; well worth the partial advance for my book.
“What’s the reasoning behind this rule, Garrett? You didn’t want me to enjoy the view?”
I turned and stepped back into the house. I then locked the door.
“Oops. That’s another rule broken. Hope the house doesn’t chastise me.”
With that, I traveled upstairs to the bedroom and fell into a blissful sleep the moment my body met the sheets. My slumber would not last.
I awoke to a thunderous banging at the front door. In an groggy slur of motion, my legs just barely managed to pull the rest of my body out of bed. Practically sleep walking, I eventually made my way downstairs and opened the door. Outside, there were no longer any stars. Their light was replaced with a thick fog, rolling over the ocean. The water and air were still; frozen in place. There was no one there but me.
I closed the door and went back to bed; certain that the sounds I heard were remnants of a dream overlapping with waking life. My body fell onto the bed, and sleep took hold once more.
I awoke again, ripped from a dream-state where I was turning in my novel to the publishing house. For whatever reason, in this dream, Garrett was my boss. He held the manuscript to my face and flipped the pages, revealing a lack of ink.
“There’s nothing here, Jack. All that time and nothing to show for it.”
He continued to flip through before stopping somewhere in the middle. Unlike the other pages, this one had text. The words were familiar, but they weren’t written by me. Garrett’s rules painted the page, the pitch-black ink slowly dripping from the paper. His form soon followed, melting onto the floor below.
“You should have followed the rules, Jack.”
That’s when I sprung to life, my heart pounding as I sat up in bed. The sound of pages turning rang in my ears, but it hadn’t leaked over from my nightmare. Over on the desk was my manuscript, its paper wildly flapping about. My heart nearly sank before I noticed a chill in the room. I had left the window open. It was just the wind.
Relieved, I shut the window and went back to sleep.
No sound woke me this time. Instead, it was nature calling, beckoning me to take a late-night trip to the bathroom. Unfortunately for me, this would not be an easy task. Upon opening the bedroom door, I was greeted by a deeply unsettling sight.
It was a hallway. Not the hall that should have been there, mind you. An entirely different hallway. Noticeably different. It was narrow; almost too thin for a person to walk through. And it was long. Very long. Seemingly longer than the building itself. Lining the sides was a plethora of doors. More doors than I knew the house to have. It was, by all means, unexplainable.
I rubbed my eyes to test their acuity. The hallway was still there. I wondered for a moment if I was dreaming, but quickly discarded the notion, certain that I could tell the difference between what was real and what wasn’t. But if not a dream, then what?
With an air of hesitance about me, my feet pattered into the narrow void. I tried each door along the way, but they were all locked. Halfway in, a harrowing sound cut through the air. I turned my head to see that the bedroom door had shut itself. Running back and turning the knob was futile. It wouldn’t budge.
Without a whole lot of options, I continued down the hall. At the end was a final door, different than the rest. Affixed to it was a plaque with a designation, like one you might see in a hotel. According to the text, it was Room 371. The knob offered no resistance as I turned it and gently pushed the door open.
There was no light inside. Still, I could make out something standing in the center of the room, facing me. It was a shadowy figure, slightly darker than the blackness around it. A vague glow outlined its form. It was tall. Taller than any man. I had the inclination to close the door and turn back, but fear kept me anchored in place.
My breathing became erratic and my heart-rate soared to new heights as it took a step towards me. In a flash, it lunged to my position. Everything went black.
My eyes opened to sunlight pouring into the room. I was back in bed. This was strange. Every bone in my body told me it wasn’t a dream, but rational thinking dictated otherwise. I had no choice but to entertain the idea that I was having vivid night terrors in the face of a fast-approaching publishing deadline. The sooner I finished the book, I thought, the sooner they would vanish. Though it didn’t sit well with me, it was the only explanation I had.
My phone buzzed on the bedside table. I knew who it was, but with my deadline on the horizon, I couldn’t afford the distraction. When the buzzing ceased, I crawled out of bed and started the day.
My first few hours awake were productive. I was able to write over half of the next chapter and tweak some finer details throughout the rest of the book. My progress was, however, impeded by a knock at the front door. Unlike the night previous, there was someone out there. A man.
“Can I help you?” I asked, confused.
“Was hoping I could help you, actually. The name’s Hank. I’m a locksmith from the mainland. Garrett sent me to check the locks on all of the doors.”
I pondered for a moment and then grabbed the list of rules from the coffee table. I looked it over before meeting Hank back at the door.
“Well, it looks like you’re on the list.”
“Splendid! May I come in then?”
An unnaturally wide smile danced across his cheeks.
“Yeah, sure. Come in.”
Hank walked past the threshold and sighed. There was a long moment of silence before he spoke again.
“What a lovely place. Can’t wait to sink my teeth in and get to work.”
He then sauntered off upstairs. I sat down on the couch and continued writing, hoping my creative breakthrough hadn’t subsided.
An hour passed. Then another. I was able to finish up some more work, but something kept scratching at the back of my mind. I knew locksmithing wasn’t the loudest job out there, but I expected to hear at least some sort of tinkering coming from upstairs. The distant sound of keys scraping against the locks’ inner chambers. But no, there was only silence.
I then wondered why Hank was there to begin with. This was far from a typical rental experience, especially one on a secluded island.
I skimmed the list again. Two things stood out. Rule #7: Never lock the doors. Even if Garrett was deranged, it was clear he didn’t want the doors locked, so why, then, would he send a locksmith? Who could would be breaking in out here, anyway? The second thing that jumped out at me was the end of Rule #3; Ask for last names. Something wasn’t adding up, but I intended to get to the bottom of it.
“Hank!” I yelled out, hoping to get his attention.
There was no answer.
“Hank, can you please come down here?”
No response. Only silence. This was my queue to investigate.
To my dismay, the second floor was completely vacant. I scoured every room, every nook and cranny the house had to offer, to no avail. Hank was nowhere to be found. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it. How could a person just up and vanish like that?
I returned to the first floor. Hank was there, sitting on the couch, looking over my manuscript. There was no way he could have snuck by me.
“Say, this is pretty good. I wonder how it’s going to play out. Help me out here, Jack. Is there a happy ending, or does the man succumb to his own demons?”
I stood frozen at the bottom of the stairs.
“Hank,” I asked, “what’s your last name?”
A grin formed beneath his nose.
“Wreden. The name’s Hank Wreden. Why do you ask?”
I looked down at the list in my hand. Penston. His name was supposed to be Hank Penston.
“No reason. Just curious. Hey, do you mind tossing me my phone?”
Hank looked down at my phone on the coffee table. A few moments passed before he grabbed it and looked over at me. He stared for a long time, almost as if calculating the distance, and then, finally, threw it over. I caught it and ran for the front door.
“Thanks! I’ll be right back.”
I sprinted to the edge of the island, unsure of who, or what that was inside the house. It was becoming ever-apparent that Garrett might not be so crazy after all. Something truly strange was afoot and I wanted no part of it.
At first, I called the ferry station. No answer. Then Garrett. Still no answer. Before I could try another number, my ex-wife called. I had been ignoring her calls for weeks.
“Charlotte, Thank God. I’m at an AirBnB off the Cape, I need you to-”
“Leslie’s dead, Jack.”
My blood ran cold. It was said with the same tone and resentment as it was two years before. All at once, the floodgates opened, and a slew of memories poured in; ones I had tried desperately to repress.
Leslie was our daughter. Before Charlotte and I divorced, she was struck by a car on her way home from school. Charlotte was at work and I was supposed to pick Leslie up, but I was too wrapped up in my first novel. I forgot all about her. My own daughter. She walked a good mile before the collision. I never forgave myself. Neither did Charlotte.
“Charlotte, why are you saying this?”
Tears rolled down my face.
“She’s dead, Jack. It’s your fault. My baby is dead, all because of you.”
Her voice became louder and less distinct until I could barely recognize the cadence. An inhuman growl.
“You’re to blame, Jack. You belong where you are. I hope you rot in that house!”
I looked down at the list, now stained with the steady stream of droplets dripping from my cheeks. And that’s when I remembered Rule #2. Do not answer your phone. Callers cannot be trusted.
As much as it pained me, I hung up on her. It wasn’t real, but it sure as hell felt like it was.
I wiped away my tears and looked at the last rule. Braving the fierce currents of the ocean likely wouldn’t end well- the shore nearly 16 miles away- so Jessica was my only hope; the only phone call you can trust, according to Garrett. I dialed the number and waited. After two tones, my ear was met with a female voice.
“You broke a rule, didn’t you?”
“A few actually, give or take.”
She let out a sigh.
“Did you let anyone in?”
“No. Hank Wreden.”
There was another disappointed sigh.
“Okay, listen carefully. I want you to go to the back of the house, but act natural. No sudden moves or conspicuous behavior. Any slight change in your attitude could set him off. Walk slow and be cautious.”
I did as instructed. On my way around the house, I looked through the window. Hank was no longer in the living room. There was a slight spike in my adrenaline, but I held my composure. Until turning the corner, that is.
Standing at the back of the house, waiting for me, was Hank.
“Hey there, Jack. What are you up to?”
Jessica chimed in.
“Stay calm and repeat what I say, verbatim. Hank, I have Garrett on the phone. He wants to know if you can check the lock on the front door. He says it’s been sticking, lately.”
In the most casual voice I could muster, I repeated what Jessica said. Hank bore a stoic expression for a few moments and then spoke.
“That darn thing. I’ll see what I can do.”
He walked past me and went off to the front of the house. I was officially rattled. Jessica’s voice broke the tension.
“About a dozen yards from the house is an electrical box. Do you see it?”
I surveyed the area and noticed the box. It was embedded in a tree stump, of all places. One that stuck out of the ground at an awkward angle.
“Yes, I see it.”
“Good. Open the hatch. There is a lever there. I want you to pull it down and then wait exactly ten seconds, after which you will place it back in its original position and close the hatch.”
I was confused.
“How is this going to help, exactly?”
There was a third sigh of frustration.
“That is the master switch. When you pull the lever, it will deactivate all energy on the island. When you reset the lever, the house will reconstitute. This will wipe the sleight clean.”
I didn’t understand how it all worked, but I had heard enough to warrant an obvious follow-up question.
“Couldn’t I just leave it off?”
There was no sigh this time. Just anger.
“NO! The island is far worse when the energies are at bay. Ten seconds is all you’re allowed.”
At this point, I saw Hank walking alongside the house.
“I fixed that lock for you, Jack!”
Jessica must have heard, because her voice adopted a tone of urgency.
“Pull the lever, now!”
I did as she said and began counting. Hank continued to walk towards me, his form fazing in and out like a bad television signal.
“Jack, what are you doing? Need a hand?”
His pace grew faster until his walk became a run. My heart was pounding. Just as he was closing in, the ten seconds were up, and I forced the lever back. Hank vanished completely and the stump receded into the earth below. I fell back onto the ground in relief.
“Jessica, we did it.”
Clearly she wasn’t as pleased with the victory as I was. That was fine. I was just thankful to be alive.
Once inside the house, I laid down in bed and held the list to my face, scrutinizing every last detail. I was determined not to break another rule for the rest of my stay.
That night was peaceful. I made sure all of the doors were unlocked, turned off the lights by 11:25, and refused to answer any calls. When I slept, there were no strange dreams. No dreams at all, in fact. It was a truly restful night. The best sleep I’d had in years. Despite my predicament, I awoke hopeful. Hopeful that I could weather the storm and survive the week. I was even able to write some more of my book. Not much, but enough to jump-start my creativity.
The next night didn’t go nearly as well.
I had woken without cause. In an effort to fall back asleep, I shut my eyes and allowed my mind to wander. I thought of my book and the deadline. I thought of my eventual departure from the island. Before long, I thought of Charlotte and Leslie. The image of our once happy family would forever be seared into my broken heart. I felt my eyes begin to water, but something interrupted the sadness. A sound. Footsteps.
My eyes opened and I sprang to life, sitting upright in bed. The footsteps stopped just outside the room. With a great deal of apprehension, I got out of bed, took a deep breath, and tip-toed to the door. When I turned the knob and opened it, I found myself at the entrance of the house. With Rule #5 in mind, I shut the door and opened it again. I was now at the living room. Next was the bathroom. Then, a hallway.
A familiar hallway.
Off in the distance, I heard the click of Room 371’s door. The tall shadow stepped out. The hall began to shrink. The figure closed the gap between us in a matter of seconds. Luckily, my will to live outweighed the fear that held me in place. I managed to shut the door, just in time to prevent my demise. When I opened it again, the room was back where it was supposed to be.
Just as I was finally drifting back to sleep, the voices started.
“Hey Jack. Enjoying your stay?”
Though frightened, Rule #6 came to mind and I followed it. The voices were harmless and I was not to converse with them.
“What’s wrong, Jack? Hung up on Garrett’s rules? That’s no fun.”
I closed my eyes as the voice grew louder and hid beneath the covers.
“Don’t hide, Jack. We won’t hurt you. Honest.”
The footsteps were back, walking outside the room. They stopped at the door.
“He’s here now, Jack. I can tell you how to make him go away, but you have to talk to me.”
The door creaked open and the footsteps recommenced, walking over to the side of the bed.
“He’s leaning over you now. I can make him leave, just say the word.”
I couldn’t give in to the ploy. I had to obey the rules. But then, there was a tug on the sheets. My heart nearly stopped.
“WAKE UP, JACK!”
I jolted to a sitting position. The room was empty and the door shut. It was a dream. But that didn’t explain the hand-shaped impression on the edge of the bed. No matter the culprit, I would endure the torment. It was only a week. You can get through this, Jack. Leslie’s face flashed in my mind and forced an unexpected tear out. You’ve been through so much worse.
The next few nights came and went without issue. There were some dicey moments, but I learned to handle the odd voice here and there and the room moving every now and again. I ignored knocks at the front door all together, avoiding any and all potential repeats of the Hank incident. Night 6, however, was by far the worst.
Some things never change.
Dark clouds loomed over the ocean as waves crashed into the island. Just like the night Leslie was killed, I became deeply engrossed in my writing; to the point that nothing in the world could have pulled me away. Even after everything that had happened in the house, I was somehow able to finish the book. Maybe the shock to my system inspired me. My fear had transformed into focus, granting me a greater mental clarity. When all was said and done and the editing complete, there was a horrible revelation.
According to my phone, it was 11:24pm.
My heart sank to the depths of my soul as I raced across the house shutting lights off, knocking over furniture and decorations in the process. When I came back to the bedroom to turn off the final light at the desk, I glanced at my phone once more. The readout is now etched into my memory. 11:26pm.
I clicked off the light, praying that my phone’s readout was somehow wrong and that I still had time.
The bedroom door slammed itself shut behind me. I jostled the knob and pushed my weight against it, but it remained unmoved. A swirling, black vortex of smoke was expelled from beneath the bed. It covered the floor in an instant and began rising to fill the rest of the room. I had no intention of waiting to see what would happen to me in the darkness, so I flung myself at the window and shattered the glass, landing on my back in a bed of shrubbery below. The impact knocked the wind out of me. Shortly thereafter, I passed out.
I dreamt. I know it was a dream and not the house’s doing because it was one I’d had many times before. The setting; my daughter’s school. The bell rang and a stampede of children rushed out into the world, excited to leave for the day and see their parents. The last person out was Leslie, left alone to her own devices.
“Daddy? Where are you?”
Her eyes darted back and forth. I tried to call out to her, but much like the day in question, I wasn’t there. In the dream, I was only an observer, forced to watch as the horror unfolded before me.
Leslie waited for fifteen long minutes before heading off in the direction of our home. I bore witness to her trek; a poor girl alone in the cold. And then, it happened. Dream tears flooded my field of view as a car swerved and the heart-wrenching scream of that beautiful, young girl rang through the winter air.
I woke up on the ground covered in tears and broken glass. The ocean waves crashed against the walls of the house. There was no time to waste. Without my phone, I didn’t know exactly what time it was, but it had to be close to midnight. Another broken rule would only make matters worse. I raced to the front door, opened it, and swiftly shut it behind me, somewhat thankful to be back in the house, but also somewhat terrified. The coming moments would echo the latter emotion, adding to my woes.
I was able to open the bedroom door and retrieve my phone. Luckily, the smoke had vanished. Upon venturing back down to the living room, I was shattered; just like the glass on the ground outside. There, sitting on the couch where Hank sat before her, was Leslie.
I reached the bottom step and nearly fell to my knees, almost forgetting to breathe in the process. She was… the same. Exactly the same. Every feature identical to the day I last saw her. How was this possible?
Her voice pulled a wave of emotion out of me, stronger than anything I had ever felt before. Was it really her? Was this really my precious Leslie, brought back to life? Surely this wasn’t the house’s doing. Was it?
“Sweetheart, is that you? Is it really you?”
She looked over at me with innocent eyes.
“Yes, Daddy. It’s me.”
I ran over to her and took her in my arms, my face now drenched in an ocean of tears.
“Oh, Leslie! Sweetheart, I missed you so much.”
I pulled away to get a better look at her. That’s when I saw it. For an instant, in between blinks, her eyes were solid pools of black. This was not my Leslie. I backed away at once.
“What’s wrong, Daddy?”
I continued my retreat to the stairs.
“You’re not real. This isn’t real. We buried you.”
Her next words stopped me in my tracks.
“No, Daddy. You buried me.”
Her eyes locked with mine as I cried.
“You killed me. YOU’RE THE REASON I’M DEAD.”
I took a pained breath before responding.
“You’re right. I was a terrible father and I deserve every moment of torture this house puts me through. If I ever get out of here, I’m going to visit your grave for the first time and tell you how sorry I am and how much I’ve missed you over the years. Not a day goes by that the guilt doesn’t eat me up inside.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat and wiped away the tears as she looked up at me, her head tilted in observation.
“But you’re not her.”
I ran up those stairs as fast as I could. Leslie’s piercing screams echoed through the house, followed by the sound of every window breaking in reaction to the pitch. Once in the bedroom, I closed the door behind me and slid down into a sitting position on the floor against it, utterly defeated and emotionally drained. I pulled out my phone and dialed Jessica’s number. After two tones, she picked up.
“What is it this time? Don’t tell me you broke another rule.”
“I think I’m going to die, tonight, Jessica.”
Her perturbed tone vanished, replaced with concern.
“Jack, what did you do? What’s going on over there?”
“I can’t fight it anymore. It’s too much.”
As much as I wanted to live, I could feel myself giving up. I don’t even know why I called her. She couldn’t help. The lever was gone, and it was past midnight. The storm outside was destroying the house. Soon, I would be swept out to sea, never to be heard from again.
“Hold on, Jack. I’ll be there soon.”
She wouldn’t be coming. Even if the ferries ran that late, they wouldn’t dare operate in a storm that violent. The end was near, and I could feel it.
After a good long while of wallowing in self-pity, there was a knock at the front door.
Jessica? No, it couldn’t be.
I cautiously exited the bedroom and slowly descended the staircase to the living room below. The storm raged on outside, a gust of wind howling through the house. In reaching the bottom step, I noticed that the coast was clear. Leslie’s ghost was nowhere in sight.
As quickly as I could without drawing any unwanted attention to myself, I pattered over to the door and opened it. Behind it was a beautiful woman in her 30s, black hair, peach skin, and a tasteful spattering of freckles on either side of her nose.
“Jessica?” I asked.
“Who else would it be?”
Her voice and sassy attitude answered my question in spades. I stepped aside and she barged in, clearly upset. I closed the door behind her, careful not to lock it and risk breaking another rule. I was less scared of the supernatural consequences than I was of Jessica’s fury.
“You really had me worried, Jack. What did you do, anyway?”
Before I could answer, a small figure appeared from behind the couch. It was Leslie. Jessica followed my gaze and looked across the room.
“Jack… who’s that?”
“I didn’t know she was here with you.”
“You don’t understand. My daughter has been dead for two years.”
Jessica backed up to the door where I was still standing.
“Oh. I see.”
Just as before, Leslie let out an awful shriek that rang through the house. It was louder than before. Much louder. Jessica turned to me, our hands cupping our ears.
“Jack! We need to get out of here! Follow me!”
We raced past Leslie and up the stairs to the bedroom.
“Okay, Jack. Let’s get going.”
She shut the door and opened it. She continued this routine, revealing the many rooms of the house. At one point it opened up into the living room. Jessica quickly slammed it shut before Leslie could make her way in to get us. Finally, it opened up into the hallway.
Yes, that hallway.
Jessica grabbed my wrist.
“Come on. Let’s go.”
I yanked my arm back in refusal.
“Are you insane? I’ve been in there and I don’t plan on going back. Have you seen Room 371?”
Jessica let out one of her signature sighs.
“Yes, I know all about it. So long as we get to where we’re going before the shadow notices, we’ll be fine. Now come on! We don’t have a whole lot of time here.”
I reluctantly respected her wishes. I wasn’t keen on facing that ominous stretch of hall again, but Jessica’s advice hadn’t failed me yet. Besides, I was ready to die just an hour ago. Whatever fate would befall me in there couldn’t be any worse than seeing my dead daughter, resurrected.
“Okay, Jessica. I’m ready.”
Matching each other’s pace, step for step, we disappeared into the dark hallway, the bedroom door closing behind us. I whispered, so as not to wake the beast.
“Where are we going, anyway? None of the doors down here open.”
Without hesitation, she answered.
It took a moment for it to sink in.
“No, Jessica! Are you serious? I can’t go in that room. It lives in there!”
She turned to me and put her hands on either side of my face. She stared into my eyes with a look of pure kindness. I was taken aback by the unexpected intimacy.
“Jack, you need to calm down. Just trust me. We are going to be fine. I promise.”
As far as explanations go, that was pretty vague. Still, it was reassuring. I can’t explain it, but I was compelled to believe her. There was something about Jessica I really liked. A warmth that radiated around her. A contagious, soothing force. We continued down the hall, and I didn’t bring up my reservations again.
We reached the door. This was it. The moment of truth. I was about to open it when Jessica pulled my hand back.
“In order for this to work, you need to knock three times. No more and no less.”
I nodded in agreement. I raised my hand to the wood and knocked precisely three times. A deep anxiety wracked my nerves as the anticipation grew. After a few moments, the door was pulled open, revealing the shadowy figure within. It stepped away and motioned for us to enter. I looked over to Jessica for approval. She nodded and followed me in.
The entity softly closed the door behind us. It then walked over to where we stood and… changed. I’s dark form turned to light, illuminating the rest of the room. It was the bedroom. Only, it wasn’t exactly the same. Something was amiss. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. It just felt… different.
The bright figure then shrunk down to a glowing orb and drifted away, fazing through one of the walls, leaving us by ourselves. Moonlight shone through the window. The glass wasn’t broken anymore. There was no storm outside. Everything was pristine.
“Jessica, what just happened?”
“This is the house’s safe space. A fail-safe for when too many rules are broken.”
She could tell I wasn’t following.
“It’s a copy of the bedroom from just before things went south. A moment suspended in time that we can stay in for a while. At dawn, everything will revert to normal.”
“Why didn’t you tell me about it before?”
“Honestly, it’s a risky move. The shadow is a fickle being. When you enter Room 371, there’s only a 50% chance he’ll accept your entrance. Otherwise, you’re doomed.”
I couldn’t believe it.
“You’re telling me we could have died? You risked our lives on a 50% chance?!”
She came over and placed her hands on my face again.
“Jack, we’re safe. There’s no need to be angry. Relax. We would have died anyway at the hands of the house. This was our only option.”
She was right. Honestly, I was happy she was there. Without her, I would have been a goner.
Jessica spent some time going over my manuscript. I filled in some of the blanks so she could skip the more fatty sections and finish before bed.
“Jack, this is beautiful.”
I wasn’t so sure. Maybe I put too much of myself in it. Maybe the blood I poured onto the pages covered up the meaning. Who in their right mind would want to swim through my despair to reach a story even I wasn’t sure I believed in?
“It’s about you, isn’t it, Jack? This is your life from the moment your daughter died to now.”
I felt myself unraveling.
“I’m tired, Jessica. I think I’m going to call it a night.”
I offered her a half-smile, waltzed over to the bed, and laid down. To my surprise, she laid down with me and placed her hand on my chest.
“It’s okay, Jack. I’ve never lost a child, so I can’t imagine the kind of things you’re dealing with. I do know that things will never be same. That doesn’t mean you have to give up. What would your daughter have wanted?”
There was no fighting the tears any longer.
“You don’t understand, Jessica. I’m responsible. She was waiting for me when it happened. I was her father and I wasn’t there for her when she needed me.”
Jessica didn’t respond. I sobbed until there was nothing left in me. When the moment passed, I asked her a question.
“Why do these things happen here?”
“Honestly, I don’t really know.”
We turned to each other. Her warmth reared its head again, inviting me to come to it. Our lips met, and with it, an intense feeling was born. Like nothing I had ever felt. A somber, quiet energy filled the air and coated the room.
In a turn of events I will never fully fathom, Jessica and I made love.
Jessica fell asleep in my arms. I stayed awake, content for the first time in years. Then, a familiar disembodied voice burrowed into my ear and poisoned my mind.
“What you’re feeling isn’t real.”
By this point I was all too familiar with the voices and their antics. I ignored its statement.
“She does this to every tenant. She’s a seductress.”
I was tempted to reply, but conversing was forbidden. I couldn’t afford a broken rule this close to the finish line.
“Only two people are allowed in, Jack. Two. It’s a simple rule.”
What did that have to do with anything? What was the voice up to? Jessica was one of the two. Despite my unrest, I continued to bite my tongue.
“Always ask for last names.”
There was a moment of pause before the realization washed over me. I gasped. A rule had indeed been broken.
I jumped and backed into the corner of the room. Jessica was standing next to the bed. I hadn’t even seen her get up.
“Jack, are you okay?”
My breathing became labored. It was hard to construct my query in a normal fashion.
“Jessica… are you really you, was this… what is your last name?”
The light left her face. Her now empty eyes cut right through me. I slid to the floor. A long period of silence passed before anything changed. Before she changed.
Jessica’s face widened. Her eyes became large, as if physically engorged with blood lust. She lunged at me. I dodged the attack and hit the door hard. I reached for the knob, but it wouldn’t turn. Jessica’s new form spoke. A gurgling, metallic sound that ricocheted off the walls.
“It looks like you’re stuck with me, Jack.”
She lunged again. I slid under the bed to escape her reach. Her feet paced around its perimeter; a predator circling its prey. It was just a matter of time now.
I closed my eyes and thought of Charlotte and Leslie, playing in the snow; the last day I saw them together. This would be my final thought as death approached. As beautiful a thought as one could have before dying. At least now, I could be with her again.
A pained outcry from Jessica broke my concentration. The light in the room had changed. I rolled out from underneath the bed and saw her writhing in the corner. The sun was coming up over the horizon outside. This was my chance.
I raced over to Jessica and clenched her neck. She struggled, but was too weak to break free. I forced her against the window. Her skin melted, dripping like candle wax to the floor. Her hair burned to a crisp. I looked to her eyes for even a shred of humanity; something that might convince me to spare her for all she had meant to me. There was none. Only malice. In that moment, I sincerely wished that she had been real.
With as much force as I could muster, I pushed her through the window. Her form disintegrated before it could reach the ground. The wind carried her ashes away into the endless expanse of the ocean.
She was no more.
The house was still. Hours passed. As my rental period came to a close, I sat in the living room and reflected on the events of the week. In a weird way, I had come to terms with Leslie’s death. The guilt would always be there, but I felt I could move on now, free of the restraints that once bound me.
I opened the door and let Garrett in.
“Your ferry awaits!”
I nodded and gathered my things. I was anxious to leave, but felt the need to ask him something first.
“Garrett, what is this place?”
“Many words come to mind. Anomaly, portal, impossibility. I personally think it’s a mirror, showing us ourselves in a way we never thought possible. A place where our past and present intersect. Perhaps the right word for it is closure.”
“You might be onto something, Garrett.”
“Splendid! Does that mean you’ll leave a good review?”
“You know what, I’ll do it right now.”
I opened the app and clicked through to the listing. A bit of information caught my eye as I scrolled.
Check out time: 12:00pm
I looked up at the readout at the top of my phone’s display. It turned to from 11:59 to 12:00 as I watched. I let someone in before time was up, meaning a rule had been broken. The note at the end of the list came to mind as the dread set in.
I will come to collect you, but only when the rental period is over. Not a moment sooner…
That wasn’t Garrett.
I looked up to see him standing directly in front of me.
“Something wrong, Jack?”
I dropped my things and ran out to the dock as fast as I could. The ferry had just arrived; the real Garrett aboard, motioning for me to hurry. After boarding, I turned back and looked at the house, one last time.
A silhouette stood at the window, waving goodbye.
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