I hear my wife’s voice go shrill in the dark.
I jerk up in bed, my fingers feeling the still warm place next to mine where my wife should be – and isn’t.
This old hotel made me nervous since the first time when saw it from the road and my wife insisted we stop.
She said dinner hadn’t agreed with her and could not face the long drive home uncertain when the next rest station would come.
But so far upstate and off the usually interstate highway, the only open hotel we could find was this dark, four story Victorian disaster with a “vacancy” sign so covered in cobwebs I knew it meant trouble.
Who would stay in such a place unless as desperate as we were?
I begged my wife to pass this one by with the hopes of finding another. But she felt so ill by that time, we had to stop.
Even the porch steps had cobwebs; as the wood groaned beneath our feet as we pushed on to reach the doorbell.
This rang dully inside and soon retrieved a very tall, gaunt man in a wrinkled suit who growled more than he spoke, though agreed to put us up for the night in one of the third floor rooms.
Why we needed to climb so high when obviously no other guests resided here, he never said.
I dared not ask. My wife so bent on lying down didn’t care or notice the odd interior, a Victorian era collection of antiques that had clearly functioned since their installation – gas lamps sputtering along our long climb.
Once in our room, I only reluctantly put out the lights.
Immediately, I heard the moans and groans of the old house as if time had not yet completed its settling, though my imagination painted every sort of evil waiting to leap out at us, to take advantage of my wife’s illness to do us harm.
These thoughts kept me up long after my wife fell into the merciful arms of slumber. I listened to every sound, heard the wind howl, heard the scuffle of things that might have been mice in the dark, even thought I heard the rasp of struggled breath and the slow thump of someone’s labored walking outside our door.
I must have slipped into sleep at some point because the shrill cry jerked me awake.
My wife is gone.
I hear moaning from the house and the rattle of pipes similar to those I’ve heard in the city when air seeps into them.
More footsteps. More moans.
I think I even hear voices murmuring in the distance, filled with epithets about never making the same mistake again.
The shrill cry comes again, followed by more moans.
I do not want to stir from bed. I want to do as I did as a child, bury my head under the covers until the danger passes.
But my wife has wandered into the midst of this place and I must seek her out and keep her from harm.
So I ease my feet out into the cold air, coming into contact with the dusty and chill wooden floor.
This moans, too, and echoes the moans I hear elsewhere.
I call for my wife.
I hear a vague reply as if from some great distance – out beyond the door or our room, somewhere in the bowels of the house.
This lures me into the hall, where the banister to the stairs forms a king of fence along one side, prevents anyone from accidentally tumbling down the spiral of stairs leading to the front door.
My bare feet whisper as I creep along, stirring up more dust our arrival had failed to disturb.
I call for my wife again.
Again comes the muffled reply, seeming to come from behind one of the doors farther along, a door I can barely make out in the dim light left by the glowing gas lamp from the landing below.
I make my way to the first door, call her name.
No reply. But I hear other strange noise, inhuman sounds that are magnified by the hard wood everywhere, sounds manufactured from some animal nature I can only shutter to imagine.
Then to the next door, I go, and the next, and finally reach the one behind which she is held captive.
“For Christ’s sake, George!” she snaps. “I’m trying to use the toilet. Will you please go back to bed.”