Jackie awkwardly peeled the chilled Wild Turkey from inside of the plastic bag and set it in the table's middle where its amber glowed.
“Anyone know how to open one of these fuckers?” she asked her friends, seated around the table's sides corners like some amateur séance.
Fred, to her left, shrugged. Tommy, that wisp of a mustache he'd had since freshman year still not given the go-ahead to flourish, reached to examine the bottle. Before he found a way in, Scott grabbed it and, in one motion, twisted open the cap and the plastic surrounding, and snorted its first drink.
“Ah!” he unleashed a breath of fire. “That is not at all great.”
He handed the bottle to Tommy, who pulled the end of his sweatshirt to wipe the rim.
“Seriously?” said Scott.
“Don't take it personal,” said Tommy, and took his sip. The look on his face remained steady but its color told a different tale. A moment later, he jumped from his seat and ran past the pair of double beds into the bathroom, where he loudly spit the offending liquid into the toilet. “That's fucking disgusting,” his voice echoed from within the porcelain.
The others laughed. This was an unfortunate reaction, but not expected. It was somewhat the goal of the trip, after all, to put themselves in situations they hadn't before. One was spending the night drinking their first swigs of hard alcohol, another was arranging the precariously-stacked fictions to their parents of who was staying at who's house that allowed them to take the bus into the city that night, another would be playing hooky the next day. The rest, everything in between, was to be discovered.
It had been Scott's plan, that was certain. This final year of high school had been weighing on him since the summer. Jackie had decided to head east to Yale, while Tommy was considering the dorms at Stanford. Fred was weighing three scholarships from three schools, none within 100 miles of their town. Scott had eyes on the local state school before his mom's health took a turn, so his plans for two years at a community college before transferring dissolved into no plans at all.
The room at the Palmer was easy to secure despite being under age. Scott's dad never checked his credit card, and anyway, the pale girl with the dark eyeshadow and purple hair at check-in certainly did not give fuck enough to rat. When they entered Room 1916, the reasons for her ambivalence became obvious: The red rug was dotted with stains of a deeper color, cockroaches scurried down the tub drain when the lights were flipped, the wallpaper peeled in odd circles around the copy of the Renaissance painting that hung on the wall. But it was good enough for their goal. The remaining factor to consider was, well, just what that goal?
Scott had floated the idea of making fake I.D.'s to get into one of the bars and the unknown dangers that lurked beyond, but all he had access to was a dot matrix printer. The group spent twenty minutes using a razor to trim the photos and cardboard to act as foundation before Tommy broke the mirage with an exhausted “this shit's never going to work” and the half-baked scheme collapsed. They cooled off with a walk around the city until a distant gunshot sent them back toward the Palmer's lobby. Scott at least snagged the bottle of Wild Turkey with a twenty dollar donation to a homeless guy kneeling on the sidewalk signed with a “God Bless.” In the room, they tried to get nudie channels, but the pay-per-view technology was on the fritz, so out came the cards. It was a few hands of euchre before Fred finally remembered his value secret.
“Shit,” he said, spinning a bower on the table so it slammed against the bourbon and slide to the floor. He ran to the closet area near the door where they'd thrown their bags and began to rifle through his pack. The seated three examined the confusing action with the intrigue of a junior year Lit professor reading their eight dozenth analysis of 1984, until he popped back up with a plastic baggy in his hand with a flurry of green within, and then another with nothing but a pipe and a lighter.
“Anyone know how to do this?” he said.
Scott, the only one with an older brother, took over. Ten minutes later, the room was smoky enough that Fred had to stumble from his seat to the window to crack one. He then gazed across the courtyard to the Palmer's opposing tower, counting the lit windows, wondering the stories of those within, and what stories were anyway, and the presence of time and place, and life itself, what are we anyway. Jackie broke his toe-dip into the infinite with a call, and Fred giggled back to his seat, where they'd been debunking Tommy's grandma's claim that she'd seen a ghost.
“What time of day was it?” asked Scott. “Night times are weird with light reflections and shadows, all that.”
“And kids are running around, playing tricks,” Jackie said. “It being Halloween season and all.”
“Middle of the afternoon, guys,” said Tommy, turning to the new entrant. “Listen to this, Fred. My abuela says she was just cooking lunch at her place, when she turned around and this old woman was standing there in the kitchen, staring, wearing some old dress from last century. And then she blinked, and the woman just disappeared.”
“She's getting up there in age, right?” asked Jackie. “My grandpa's in the nursing home and mistook me for my own mom five times now.”
“In her 60s, but's never had any sort of, you know, senior moment,” Tommy said. “She's not even, like, spiritual. Whenever my mom drops us after church, she calls it 'coming back from the load of crock.'”
“What about the house?” said Fred, his eyes reddened. Live there awhile?”
“It's an old house, who the hell knows how long,” said Tommy. “Moved in last year.”
“Had she spent an October there before?” Fred asked.
Tommy quietly calculated when his dad had helped pack up her last apartment after the landlord had ignored their year-long request to take care of the rat infestation, and then abuela's riotous protests that followed being moved, and the long arguments about the seemingly excessive expenditure of one lady in a four-bedroom house ended with justifications about the market, and retaining value in property, and maybe moving in whichever of Tommy's older siblings first produced a family. That was at the end of last winter, Tommy recalled, when the last bits of frozen white still lingered on the grass even though it was hot enough to wear a T-shirt.
“Nope,” said Tommy. “Moved in March.”
“Then she's probably legit,” said Fred. “It's likely she saw a ghost.”
“What does that shit prove?” Jackie said.
“It's what ghosts are, you know,” said Fred, and his head bobbed as he spoke as if there was rhythm to his explanation. “Ghosts being energy and all, just makes sense she's see it first time through the cycle.”
“You're going to have to explain, kid,” said Scott. “What cycle?”
“I mean, she's way past her last,” Tommy turned to Jackie. “You know...”
“Period!” she screamed. “Period! Period! Period! Too much to handle that you can say period, you pussy?”
“Nah, not that cycle,” said Fred. “Cycle around the sun. It's like, if we're all balls of energy, and we leave it behind when we die, so you just have these balls hovering around. And every year, the planet returns to where it was, and for a second or two our balls of energy hang around and spook out the living. Then they hang around again until the next year.”
“That's a good theory,” said Scott. “But the Earth's always moving locations. Leap years fuck shit up, gravitational pulls from other planets, things are always a little off.”
Fred leaned to respond, thought better of it, and instead made the sound of a quiet explosion and slumped back into his chair. The only sound was a light patter of raindrops against the window, that echoed with the tinny pitch of pellets dropped against a sheet of tin.
“This is some good weed, guys,” said Fred. “I've never had any before, but it seems like this is what's supposed to be happening?”
The first giggle came from Jackie, and it moved to Fred and Tommy, and the trio turned to the stoic Scott, who held pose for a second before he snorted, and the laughter flooded. There were moments when it was on the brink of fading, but a smirk or exaggerated exhale or Jackie's whispering urge to keep it down for the guests next door broke the makeshift dam again. It built to the point where they felt they couldn't take it anymore, when thoughts before to surface that this was the new reality, that their minds were lost and they'd have to adapt to this new suffocating feeling and seeing the world through tear-filled eyes. When each felt as if they'd all gone mad, the room's lights suddenly went out.
Their giggles in the pitch black faded to linger muffled laughs and then nothing at all, until it was only the pattering of raindrops outside that dominated the room.
“We blow a fuse with that giggle-fest?” said Scott.
Jackie tried a lamp, but it only clicked emptily. Greg, still quite baked out of his mind, sat and contemplated the meaning of existence. Tommy turned to the window and through the sheen of rainwater he saw glows from across the hotel's courtyard. He pulled himself off the chair to a running start to the window and placed his face against the glass, and felt the cool on his scrunched cheek as he peered from side to side.
“Think it's just us,” he said. “Rest of the hotel has power.”
The rest stumbled to the window to check Tommy's story. The other rooms in the hotel had, indeed, still been lit.
Scott saw a thin line of light reflecting off the glass and turned to find its source, the white bar coming from the bottom of the door: The hallway was still lit. He ran across the room, brushing his shin against the table with such force that the Wild Turkey bottle circled and teetered and rattled back to a standing rest. He reached for the doorknob and pulled the metal, but nothing. He tried again, rattle, rattle, rattling in the dark. Nothing.
“Door's locked,” Scott said.
And he spoke that last word, the lights flickered back on for a brief flash, so that his three friends, still gazing out the window, had their view suddenly interrupted by the sight of Scott behind them. The lights blanked again, and they once again saw the Palmer Hotel's second tower, across the vertical empty space occupied courtyard below. “That was weird,” said Fred, and the room's lights went out once again.
This time, their view of Scott at the door was obscured by the image a tall woman in a red dress with a pale face. She stared back, her eyes wide, her mouth yawning in a gape, and moving toward them from behind.
The startled three turned around, and they only saw Scott at the door. “Fucking door,” he groaned, and the lights flicked on and they all jumped in anticipation, thought they saw nothing but Scott. “What's up?” said Scott, which sent them back to darkness, then light, then darkness, and so on in, in the constant timing between a strobe and some precocious younger brother or sister fucking around with the light switch.
At that moment, Fred had a feeling he shouldn't do what he was about to do.
But he had a hunch, and it told him to turn back to the windowpane that overlooked the rainy night from their ninth floor perch, so that's what he did. His ability to see outside was suddenly broken by the turning on of the room's light, a perspective shift that revealed what was behind him, in this instance just right behind him: the close-up face of the pale woman, and her pained swollen eyes that teared at the sides, and her cavernous mouth the insides of which were bloodied and cut, and he saw the thin red line around her throat that drew blood, that was deep enough in the fat of her neck that it still held the strand of sharp wire, that hung in jiggling vibration that moved with an increasing tremor when she whispered our a rattling groan of spittle right into his ear.
Fred screamed and turned and fell back against the window with such force that it pushed open and flung sideways against the hotel exterior. Fred's head and shoulders fell out backwards in the rain, nine stories up, drops cascading on his open eyes as the tingles in his belly told him he was falling.
Before he could scream, Jackie and Tommy grabbed his body, even as his arms flailed into the wet air and dangled above the hotel's courtyard. Scott let go of the door and ran across the lit room, hurdling the table and grazing the Wild Turkey enough that it tipped and spilled, and grabbed his friend's torso. They all pulled him back in.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” said Fred. “Whoa.”
“Jesus, you okay?” said Jackie, and Tommy just grabbed her shoulder to steady himself.
“Man, man,” said Scott. “This is some good weed.”
Fred's breath calmed and he began to smile, then laugh at the joke. The others hesitantly dipped into laughter before their emotional exhaustion turned to queasy ambivalence, and their breathing was mimicked by the consistent wet thump, thump, thump of drops hitting the already saturated area of the carpet. They turned and saw the overturned bottle, and all made a move to save the whiskey when they were interrupted by the sound of a fallen metal of some small sort chiming below in the courtyard. They froze with curiosity, and turned back to look down into the rainy night.
As they angled their views to try and see what could have possibly made the noise, the open window that Fred had pushed against the hotel's exterior wall suddenly grabbed a strong gust of wind and snapped back shut with a loud smack. And with the room's light still stubbornly on, the four friends now saw no longer the courtyard, but what was standing behind them: a hunched ghastly old man with a sweaty, toothy grin, sucking in wind through his pulsing nostrils, a red slash across his face. He stared with his deep blue eyes, the eyes of the mad, and he lunged at them.
When the three turned around with screams on their lips and arms raised in defense, the madman was gone.
* * *
Rick Paulas has written a bunch, and edits The Palmer Hotel.
Photo by emie.
The Palmer Hotel. All Rights Reserved.