A collection of ten dark stories from Horror Writers Association member Aaron Polson. Witness hotels with shifting rooms…carnivorous beetles bent on devouring a sleepy mountain town…vindictive spirits with beautiful eyes…an undead Marine on his return from Iraq…a pond full of restless dead in the title story, and more.
1: Everything in its Place
The mail boxes were labeled wrong. That was the first hint that Lucey should have canceled her reservation at El Hotel de la Trampa. She wasn’t too fond of other aspects of the lobby, either: cheap candy in gaudy foil wrappers sat in a glass fish bowl on the counter, the strange man on the sofa who kept looking at her
“Can I help you?”
Lucey’s attention shifted to the clerk.
“Oh. Sorry…I was,” Lucey forced a smiled, “I need to check in.”
The man opened the guest book and pushed a pen across the counter. “Reservation?”
“Yes. Harrison. Lucey Harrison.”
He turned to the mailboxes, but looked over his shoulder. “What is it you do,Señora?”
“Oh…I’m not married. Why do you…” Lucey’s eyebrows knit together. “Well, I work with books.”
The clerk’s brown eyes burned into hers. “A teacher?” His hand slid into one of the boxes, fishing for the key.
“No. A librarian. Only an assistant, really.”
His hand stopped, crept out of the box, and plunged into another labeled with a ‘G’. “Si.” He moved to the counter and dropped a heavy brass-colored key. “Your room. Second floor.” With a nod to her bags, he asked, “Would you like some help?”
Lucey took the key and shook her head. Her peripheral vision caught the face of the man on the lobby sofa. Was he watching her?
“No, I’m fine. Second floor?”
The clerk smiled, showing a mouth of teeth mismatched and yellow.
Maybe next time I won’t travel on the cheap, she thought.
Lucey avoided the elevator and took the stairs. As she opened the door to the second floor hallway, a shadow moved at the end of the hall, perhaps someone entering their room. Goosebumps crawled up her arms. She read the key, simply labeled G, and felt the grooves of the embossed letter.
The first door on the right was labeled ‘H’; on the left she found the letter ‘A’. She walked further, dragging her suitcase across the worn carpet. Room designations descended on the left in alphabetically order, but ‘G’ came directly after ‘E’. Lucey felt the blood in her face.
“Disorder and chaos. Not very helpful at all,” she mumbled.
Her key slid into the lock, but would not open the door.
“Wait a second…”
The door was clearly labeled with a ‘G’—a brass letter screwed to the center of the door. She touched it, and then tried the key again. Nothing.
Lucey shook her head at the thought of asking the clerk for help. The door was scratched around the brass letter. Maybe a prank, she thought. From the left side of the hall, Lucey counted seven doors. She was at the sixth.
With a soft click, the key slid into the lock of the seventh door. Lucey turned the knob, and pushed inside. The air was cool and clean. She worried about moldy smells or the lingering odor of tobacco after seeing the state of the lobby, but all seemed in order. Good.
Her folding screwdriver set—the miniature kit for repairing eyeglasses—was in the front pouch of her suitcase. Lucey Harrison wanted rest, but she also needed her room letter set right. It wouldn’t do to have some stranger try to enter in the night. Whoever played the prank could not be allowed to let chaos seep in to a logical world.
Worse than the books at work, she thought. She slipped her key in one pocket, and began unscrewing her letter ‘G’. Only three letters were out of place overall, and she fixed them. It was quick work really, as only one screw held each letter in place. Quick work and proper order.
Her job done, Lucey tried her own door—‘G’—again. The key would not work. She glanced down the hall and counted again. Seven. The key still would not work.
But my bag is inside, she thought. Lucey Harrison’s stomach began to knot, a prickly, unpleasant feeling.
She hurried down the stairs to the lobby—something I should have done immediately, she self-chastised. The first sign of things gone wrong sat in the fish bowl on the counter. Instead of the brightly wrapped candies, the bowl was now teeming with small snails—too many, really, for such a small container. Her eyes swept the rest of the room, noting the now-alphabetized mail boxes behind the counter, the artificial palm tree where once stood a display of vacation brochures. The old man still sat with his paper, but now the sofa was a deep burgundy.
“May I help you?”
The clerk was wrong, too. He smiled, and his teeth were too white. Perfect. His once-brown eyes had lost all color, and now reflected her startled image in their grey irises. Lucey looked at the key in her hand, but staggered a few steps away.
Lucey jumped as a hand patted her on the shoulder.
“Come with me,” the man with a newspaper said.
The clerk’s grey eyes sent a frost into Lucey’s chest. She allowed the newspaper man to pull her aside, close to the main entrance.
“Is this a joke?” She asked, her voice shaking.
“I wish.” The man smiled; not a warm smile, but one of knowing. “How’d they get you?”
“Can I see your key?” the man asked.
She hesitated, but held it out.
“Oh. Second floor.” He pushed a hand into his pocket and produced his own key. “Me, it was numbers. See.” His hand opened to reveal a silver key with the number five.
Lucey’s hands began to tremble. “I—I don’t understand…where am I?”
“I don’t know, really. But wherever it is you want to be…well, you can’t get there from here.”
Lucey blinked. “I’ll fix things. I’ll change the doors again.” She backed toward the stairs.
“Good luck.” The man crossed his arms. “I’ll be waiting in the lobby.”
2: In Hollow Fields
Rolling fields of golden wheat and green pasture swallowed a silver Honda as it sped along a stretch of snaking asphalt. The driver leaned forward and shrugged his shoulders, trying to stay awake after three hours in the car. He rubbed the back of his neck with one hand and tightened his grip on the wheel with the other. His passenger, eyes flitting from the asphalt ahead to the side mirror as if measuring the length of road, shifted in her seat.
“How far will we be from a hospital?”
Zach leaned back. “Don’t worry, Court. I think there’s a hospital in Springdale—about fifteen miles away.”
Courtney’s shoulders dropped. She rested both hands on the top of her bulging belly. “I’m just not really comfortable, you know.” She tilted her brown eyes out the window, watching acres of Kansas prairie melt in an amber blur. “I’m seven months along, Zach. Seven months. I don’t really want some redneck doctor delivering our baby.”
“Everything will be fine. If all goes well, we’ll be out of this little shit-hole in a couple of days. A week at most.” He smiled and patted her leg. “This could be it, Court. The goldmine. The old bastard had his fortune wrapped up in the farm. The land has to be worth thousands. Hundreds of thousands.”
The car crested another hill and sped into the valley below. The town of Broughton’s Hollow lay in front of them, a loose arrangement of graying houses and broken streets, a dying carcass of a village, left to fester in remembrance of an era when family farms, railroads, and general stores ruled the American Midwest. No fewer than four church steeples rose from valley.
Courtney shivered. “Well, at least we won’t be short on Jesus.”
Zach offered a meek chuckle, but neither spoke again as Zach steered the Civic through the dilapidated main street and out the other side, toward his grandfather’s farm.
Courtney stayed in the car. Zach promised a brief introduction to the lawyer and real estate agent, and then they’d be off to Springdale for the night. She picked at her fingernails while the three men stood and talked on the lawn in front of the family farm house, discussing, she hoped, the sum Zach could earn from a sale of the land his father left upon his death. Zach Galen was the last of the family line, his own parents dead from cancer and heart disease, and the farm with all its surrounding fields were now his.
Zach glanced over at the car, and Courtney waved with a return smile. He carried himself with ease, an amateur musician trying to make his way in Kansas City. Once they met, introduced by mutual friends after a show in a smoky club, she lost herself to the easy wave in his hair and the thick dimples that pulled back at the edges of his mouth when he smiled. At least he looked like a rock star.
The other two men appeared grey, maybe an effect of the pale sky. Since leaving the city, the world had looked less colorful, but Courtney couldn’t quite understand. The country air was supposed to be cleaner. Fresh air, clean living, right? She turned around and scanned the empty field behind the car. Clean living.
Zach approached the car and tapped on the window. She lowered it.
“I think we’re going to stay here tonight,” he said.
She opened her mouth, paused, and said, “I didn’t think the Hollow had any hotels.”
Zach smiled. “No, Court. We’re going to stay here, at the farm.” Zach glanced behind him. “Mr. Olson, the realtor thinks it would be a good idea, you know. Make it look like I cared about being part of the town.” He knelt so he could look at Courtney face to face. “It’s only one night, babe. Besides, Springdale isn’t much bigger. Just the one motel with twenty rooms.”
She nodded. “Just the one night.”
“C’mon, I want to introduce you.” Zach opened her door and led her from the car.
As far as Courtney was concerned, the men were bad clones of one another. Grant Olson, identified as such by the name badge he wore, emblazoned by the red and gold logo of Valley Realty, was slightly taller than the lawyer. Both were clad in the same sort of tan-grey suit, the color of which changed in shadow or direct sunlight.
“Gentlemen, this is my girlfriend, Courtney Bauman.”
Courtney winced at the mention of her as “girlfriend” although no more formal descriptor existed. She thought the men bristled a bit too, both glancing down at her stomach when Zach said the word. “Hello,” she offered.
“Grant Olson, but you probably already know that.” He tapped his name badge with pale, waxen fingers.
“Please to meet you, Miss Bauman.” The other man reached out his hand, his fingers painted with the same strange translucence as Olson’s. “My name is Joe Weedeman. Mr. Galen’s lawyer.” He blinked. “The deceased Mr. Galen, that is. Zach’s grandfather.”
She took his hand, surprised that it was warm. Both looked like they wore a good layer of frost.
“They were just telling me about the farm, Court.”
Olson stepped closer to Courtney, gently turning her to face the road across from the house. “I was just about to explain the legend of the hollow field,” he said, pointing toward the empty space just beyond the road.
“All I see is a bunch of dirt,” Courtney said.
The two local men exchanged a quick glance. They smiled. “Exactly the point,miss,” Weedeman said. “But it’s hungry dirt.”
“I don’t like those men,” Courtney said as she undressed. “And I hate these damn pregnancy clothes. This stupid elastic.” She snapped the navy band at the top of her jeans.
Zach wrapped his arms around her from behind, rubbing his fingertips over her bulging belly. “I think you look cute, especially out of the jeans.” He pushed against her buttocks.