Darkness engulfs the shitty Park Vista Hotel, trapping guests inside with no power. Ben, a touring cyclist looking for a night in a bed, regrets not pushing on to the campground.
Three days trapped in the concrete hotel. Three days with that prick Carver appearing out of the darkness to demand a volunteer before feeding the trapped guests.
Ben seeks answers. A way out. An explanation for the darkness, for Carver. Answers that change everything.
A story of things that do more than go bump in the night.
Ben joined the rest of the guests in the Park Vista Hotel lobby to hear what that prick Carver had to say today. Walking down the stairs in the dark all he could think was how much he hated this massive concrete silo. Why design it to look out into this massive empty space and then do nothing with the space? At least with the power out he didn’t have to ride the elevator and look at it, but he remembered the dull gray space. A dozen or so brightly colored kites hanging from the different levels would make the whole thing much more cheerful. At least it would give guests something to look at when they rode the glass-walled elevator, instead of the few fake plants and brown furniture waiting at the bottom.
Ben pushed open the door and walked out into the dark corridor. He knew the way now so well there was no need to use the flashlight he carried in his pocket. Lights flashed around on the walls from the flashlights the guests held. One hit his eyes, causing him to wince.
He heard raised voices from the crowd and picked up his pace.
Cole Petersen, a gray-haired overweight golfer from somewhere in the mid-West shook his pudgy finger at Carver. “You can’t keep fucking doing this!”
Carver didn’t budge. He didn’t even blink. Ben slid into the crowd, nodded to Tuyet who was rubbing her hands together nervously, and made his way closer. Carver looked unchanged since the first day when this all started. About five six, thin, probably no more than a hundred and thirty pounds. He had these sunken eyes that all the same looked very bright and a narrow nose. He wore the same perfectly pressed blue suit as the first day too.
Carver smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes. “It’s very simple. One person submits to the blood test and then you all get to eat. It’s just a blood test. I only need one. And then you eat.”
Carver gestured at the tables behind him. Bracketed by two bright Coleman lanterns were at least a dozen pizza boxes. Now that Ben saw them he realized that he could smell pepperoni and sausage. His stomach growled. Nothing since the leftovers he ate this morning and that was with rationing. Some of these people probably hadn’t eaten since yesterday.
Ben raised his hand. “I’ll do it.”
Sweet old Sara Thompson reached out with one liver-spotted hand. “But you did it already, Ben.”
Carver snapped his fingers. “And so right you are, Mrs. Thompson. Sorry Benny, one to a customer. I need a new volunteer. One who hasn’t been tested before? The pizzas aren’t going to stay hot forever. Pepperoni, sausage and Canadian bacon for the meat lovers among you, and some vegetarian selections for the sheep. Even a couple plain cheese for anyone that has had enough excitement already. Alright? Who is it going to be?”
“I’ll do it!” That came from one of the guests Ben didn’t know well. Mary? No, Margaret. Something like that. She was short and stocky. She stepped forward and pushed up her glasses. “Let’s get it over with.”
Carver turned sideways and gestured back at the reception desk. “If you’ll just come with me to the office, miss?”
“Ms. Carlton, thank you so much for your assistance. I’ll send you back out with the others soon enough.” Carver followed her around the tables. “The rest of you? Enjoy!”
Cole made it to the table first and snatched an entire pizza box off the tables. Ben turned to Mrs. Thompson. “Why don’t you have a seat here? I’ll bring you some food.”
“Thank you Ben, you’re so kind.” He held her hand as fragile as twigs as she sat down.
As soon as she was safe he made his way quickly to the tables where people were starting to crowd around. Cole reached for an entire bottle of soda but Ben put his hand on it first.
“There’s plenty of food if we share,” he said loudly.
Cole’s chubby face flushed.
“Cole’s going to help serve everyone, right?”
Ben took the pizza box from Cole’s hands and put it back on the table. Everyone had stopped and was watching. “I’ll help. Let’s form an orderly line and we’ll all get through in moments. Okay?”
Cole looked around at everyone watching. He opened his mouth and closed it again.
“Great! Cole, thanks for giving me hand.”
Ben walked around the table. He put down the pizza box and opened the top. Supreme, with peppers and olives. The smell caused his stomach to rumble louder. he ignored it. Cole joined him at the other table. They opened all of the boxes and the rest of the guests formed a line. It went quickly then. They picked up paper plates and Ben and Cole served out the slices and poured the sodas into the paper cups Carver had provided. When a box was emptied they moved it down to the floor beneath the tables.
When Tuyet reached the line Ben handed her a second plate. “Can you take a plate over to Mrs. Thompson and come back for the drinks?”
“Yes, of course.”
Ben put three slices on each plate. Mrs. Thompson wouldn’t eat so much in one sitting but she could save it for later. Cole noticed and scowled but he didn’t say anything. Just as Ben had said, they got everyone through in short order. Marlene, he would remember it now, came back just as they were finishing the last guest. Ben handed her a plate. She had a bit of a gauze pad tapped with blue tape to inside her elbow.
“How’d it go?” Ben asked.
Marlene wrinkled her lip. “It hurt! I think he did it on purpose. I saw him smiling about it. Is there any supreme left?”
Ben gave her the last two slices and added the last pepperoni as well. “You need to get your iron up.”
After she left Ben picked up a plate and handed it to Cole. “Take your pick.”
Vegetarian or cheese, that’s all that was left. Cole looked at both, scowling and finally grabbed the last three slices of cheese pizza. He poured the last root beer into a cup and stomped off. Ben tried not to chuckle as he happily piled the four remaining vegetarian slices on his plate and picked up a two-liter Coke bottle with a little left at the bottom. Later he’d take the empties and fill them with water.
He carried the plate over to the coffee table where Tuyet was keeping Mrs. Thompson company and tried not to pay attention to blackness covering the Park Vista’s front doors. He should be able to see out towards the Great Smokey Mountains but there was nothing out there. Literally nothing. The first day they all must have gone out on the balconies thinking that someone had pulled a prank and painted their windows black during the night. But the blackness wasn’t paint, but it did envelop the hotel.
And yet somehow Carver managed to have fresh hot pizza for them.
“There’s Ben,” Mrs. Thompson said. She pushed the paper plate with two remaining slices an inch across the coffee table. “Dear boy, this young girl brought me too much. I can’t possibly eat all that!”
Ben nudged her plate back. “You’ll want to save those for later Mrs. Thompson. Our Mr. Carver hasn’t been bringing us three square meals. You might get hungry.”
Mrs. Thompson curled her lip and waved her hand, as if shooing off a fly. “That Mr. Carver is a sadistic prick!”
Tuyet coughed on her food. Ben handed her a napkin. “Are you okay?”
She nodded quickly.
“I don’t disagree, Mrs. Thompson, but that doesn’t change the fact that we don’t know for sure when our next meal will come.”
Mrs. Thompson looked past him at Cole. “No. You never do know.”
Hard to believe they’d only been in this situation four days. Sometimes it seemed like hours. And yet each day Mr. Carver only wanted one person to donate blood for whatever tests it was that he was doing. As for the man himself, no one saw him come or go.
Ben bit into a slice of pizza and looked around. No sign of Carver at all. He put the piece back down on his plate and stood up. Tuyet looked up at him with wide eyes.
“Where are you going?”
“I want to check something out. Keep an eye on my plate for me, okay?”
Ben walked away from the table towards the reception desk. Behind him he heard Mrs. Thompson’s voice, louder than she probably realized.
“Such a good-looking young man, don’t you think, dear? Are you married? You should be so lucky as to get someone like him.”
Ben grinned. Mrs. Thompson sure spoke her mind. He loved her for it too, but he worried about her in their current situation. No power, cut off from everything, what if something happened?
Past the modest reception desk was a door marked, “Staff Only.” Ben had been back once already, when Carver conducted his blood test. Maybe now would be a good time to get answers. Ben picked up one of the Coleman lanterns from the food tables on his way. He shoved the door open and went inside. A narrow hallway with vertigo-inducing stripped wallpaper, faded now with age. A grim sort of place with no expense spent to make the staff feel more comfortable. His lantern light barely lit the long hallway. If Carver was back here he didn’t have a lantern on.
Ben walked past the door to the reception desk to the next door on his right, the manager’s office. That’s where Carver had been doing the blood tests. The dark brown door was open and no light was coming from inside. Ben edged the door open and lifted the light high.
“Mr. Carver? It’s Ben Paulson. Are you in there?”
Inside the same boring office he’d seen on his first trip back here with Carver. Nothing but unattractive beige filing cabinets on one wall, a fake wood desk with a dusty computer taking up most of the room. Piles of paper had claimed the rest of the desk except on one side. Those papers lay scattered on the floor behind the desk and in their place was a box of gauze and blue tape. Nothing else to indicate Carver had even been here.
So where had Carver gone? He had to have a back way out. Maybe a way that they could take advantage of if they found it. Ben turned around and a bright light shone in his face. He could just see someone behind the light, holding the lantern. Ben raised his hand.
“Think again asshole.”
Ben recognized the voice. Cole fucking Petersen. The last thing he needed right now. Ben kept his tone even.
“Did you see Carver when you came in?”
Cole swung the lantern at Ben’s head. Ben turned away barely in time. Even so the heavy base caught his shoulder. The pain was sharp and immediate. He stumbled away from Cole and collided with one of the chairs, dropping his own lantern on the floor.
“Asshole, think you can order me around!”
Cole brought the lantern swinging down at Ben’s head. Ben’s hands tightened on the arm of the chair and he swung it up. The thin, curved metal legs caught Cole’s arm and the lantern and knocked them aside.
Cole grunted and charged.
Ben thrust the chair at him. The legs caught Cole in the ribs. The man bellowed and the force shoved Ben back towards the wall. Cole grabbed the chair and pushed towards Ben. Ben resisted just for a moment then he let go and stepped quickly to the side.
Cole, off balance, crashed forward and landed on the chair. He groaned and started getting up. Ben waited until Cole shakily regained his feet and then sent a sharp right into Cole’s face. Like hitting bread dough on the counter. Two more quick jabs and Cole dropped. He fell on his side.
Ben shook his hand. What now? Tie the man up? Leave him to try it again? Maybe he wouldn’t.
Ben left the office and pulled the door closed behind him. He took both lanterns with him. Let Cole blunder around in the dark for a while. Maybe he’d remember who the real enemy was.
The others would need one of the lanterns. Ben went back out to the lobby. Heads turned when he came out, groups clustered around the flashlights that Carver had passed out the first day. People whispered to one another. They must have seen Cole go in and hadn’t done anything about it. And now Ben comes out with both lanterns. There’d be lots of talk now. Ben replaced the lantern on the table. Tuyet waved to him.
“Are you okay?” she asked when he reached their chairs.
Her eyes turned past him back to the “Staff Only” door. “Cole?”
“He’s taking a nap.” Ben shook his head. “We’ve got to find out what’s going on here and we can’t have people like Peterson creating trouble. I need to go back. Have you seen Carver?”
“Such a nasty man,” Mrs. Thompson commented. “I don’t like him.”
“Yeah, I don’t like him either,” Ben said. “But right now he’s our only connection to what is going on here. I’m going to go back and see if I can find out how he’s coming and going.”
Back through the door into that unappealing hallway. He paused at the office door and checked on Cole. Still out, but breathing with a slight snore. Bruises already forming on his cheek. Ben left him. Nothing he could do for the man right now.
Down the hallway. The light chased away the darkness as he moved forward. More rooms. Doors to the kitchens, storage rooms and a staff lounge. All disturbingly quiet. Ben hesitated and went into the kitchen. There could be food. He went to the big refrigerator and pulled open the door. Even though he knew the power was out it still surprised him when the light didn’t come on. Ingrained habits.
Nothing inside. Bare racks and a faint smell of mold and cleansers as if someone had cleaned it out quickly without getting down into all the corners. He shut it and looked around. Another door open to what must have been a dry goods pantry. Nothing there. Not even toilet paper.
It would have surprised him if Carver had left anything back here for them. The bastard must have cleaned it all out before starting his little blood test experiments. Couldn’t have them running to the kitchen for meals, could he?
Ben leaned back against the counter. So nothing. Vending machines empty. No power anywhere. Fortunately the water worked but nothing else. And nothing but blackness outside. It was so dark in here that the lantern only made a small pool of light. Hardly seemed any different than the stuff outside.
Except the darkness outside never went away. It didn’t have substance. It didn’t even prevent anyone from going out into it.
Three days ago. People still didn’t have a clue what was going on. Carver had shown up with sub sandwiches that day. Asked for a volunteer to give blood and then they could have the food.
Thinking back, the thing that struck Ben as the strangest about it all was that no one threatened Carver. A small man with his oddly bright but sunken eyes and that perfectly pressed blue suit. A lightweight. The sort of guy that men like Peterson delighted in picking on. Outnumbered by all of the guests but not one of them threatened Carver. Ben had felt it when he stepped forward and looked into Carver’ eyes. There was an emptiness there that said, that said, Ben rubbed his eyes thinking,
Go right ahead bucko, and see what it gets ya.
And more than that, something else. In Carver’ pocket. He played with it. His fingers fondling the cool metal switch. A switchblade.
Ben’s head snapped up. A switchblade in Carver’ pocket. That’s what he had. No reason that Ben should know it but he didn’t doubt what his gut told him. Good ol’ Carver carried a six-inch switchblade and in days past he liked to cut on people with that blade.
“Lost, Benny? Maybe you ought to get back on to the others.” Carver stood leaning against the pantry door frame as if he’d been there all the time.
Except Ben knew that Carver hadn’t been there. The pantry had been empty and Ben had closed the door after he checked. Regardless, Carver stood there now watching him.
Ben stood his ground. “How long is this going to go on? How much longer are you going to keep us here?”
Carver shook his head. “Benny, you’ve been tested already. My advice? Go back to your room. Stay there until my work here is done.”
Carver spread his empty hands.
“Great. Fucking great.” Ben clenched his fists. He wasn’t a cowardly man, but he also wasn’t the sort that started fights. As strange as everything was he couldn’t just go after the guy.
Ben forced his fingers open and walked away trying to tell himself that he wasn’t a coward. That he was doing the right thing and that he wasn’t — snick — afraid that Carver would pull out a switchblade kept sharp and cleaned many times.
Passing the office Ben checked on Cole, but the office was empty. Ben went on out to the lobby again. He carried the lantern over to the table where Tuyet and Mrs. Thompson were waiting. He put the lantern on the table and dropped heavily into his chair. He rubbed his eyes.
“Are you okay?” Tuyet asked.
He looked up and forced a smile. “Fine.” He thought about telling them about his run in with Carver and decided against it. His stomach growled. “Just tired. And hungry.”
Ben snagged a slice of pizza from his plate. Only lukewarm now but he didn’t care. It still smelled of garlic and cheese and tasted great when he bit into it.
Mrs. Thompson hadn’t touched her pizza.
“Aren’t you going to eat?” he asked.
Mrs. Thompson shook one brown-spotted hand. “I’m not hungry now. Maybe later. I think I’ll go to my room and rest.”
Tuyet stood and offered Mrs. Thompson a hand. Mrs. Thompson accepted her help and slowly rose. Tuyet picked up Mrs. Thompson’s plate. “Here, I’ll help you.”
“Thank you dear, you’re so sweet. Both of you, absolutely delicious.”
“You’re sure you’re okay?” Ben asked.
“Fine, dear boy. I just need to rest.”
“Okay. Be sure you drink plenty of water.”
Mrs. Thompson’s thin lips spread in a smile. “Oh, don’t worry. I’ll get plenty to drink.”
Ben watched them walk away across the darkened lobby towards the stairs. Then he turned his attention back to the food. He finished the slice he’d been working on, enjoying the rich onion and garlic flavor, and eyed the remaining three slices. Best save them. Eat one later and then he’d have two for tomorrow. With nothing to wrap them up he didn’t think they’d last longer than that.
He picked up the plate and the Coke bottle and headed for his own room. After he safely stashed the food and filled the Coke bottle he’d come back for the other empties and fill them too. He didn’t have any bleach to sanitize the bottles but they could rotate them out. So far water hadn’t been a problem but he wasn’t counting on it lasting any more than all the food in the hotel kitchens had lasted. Carver had to be behind cleaning the place out. If it served his purpose he’d probably turn off the water too.
Maybe Carver would if he didn’t get what he wanted. Ben thought about the switchblade again. He could imagine Carver cleaning blood from the gleaming silver blade — silver? Ben shook his head. He was just making things up. He couldn’t know for sure if any of this was real or all in his head. He might have imagined the switchblade.
Except it felt real. It felt true. He couldn’t explain how he knew, but then he also couldn’t explain the darkness that had engulfed this monstrous, soulless hotel.
As he came out of the stairwell on his floor he could see light from down below. A few people were still hanging out in the lobby. Little pools of light from their flashlights. Wasting batteries so that they could see each other’s faces. Three had taken the chairs around the lantern he had left behind. Anything to get away from the ever-present darkness.
Ben still didn’t take his flashlight out when he headed back towards his room. In the hallway he couldn’t see his hand in front of his face but he knew the way and his hands were full with the plate and Coke bottle. He stopped when he had counted out enough steps. He put down the bottle and took out the flashlight and clicked it on.
There was his door. Room 413 in this shit hotel. He put the plate down too and pulled open the door. With the power off the electronic locks didn’t work. At least they hadn’t been locked in, probably some fire regulation. He pushed the door open and held it with his foot while he picked up the plate and managed to hook a finger around the bottle so he could carry both inside. Once in he turned immediately to the right and put both down on the counter beside the bathroom sink. Then he went back to the door and flipped the security bar.
Ben hated the room. If there was any other way to strip a room of personality and charm, he couldn’t imagine it. The room was functional but it lacked anything of interest. A bed, a small desk and a television on a stand. One abstract painting on the wall done in nothing but orange and green that looked like some sort of sore. The darkness was the best thing that ever happened to the room. If he only saw it through the small, dim circle of the flashlight then it didn’t seem quite as bad.
The light caught his red reflectors on his Street Machine recumbent bike where he’d leaned it against the wall. Not for the first time he wished he had pushed on to the campground instead of deciding to splurge and stay the night in this concrete death trap.
He crossed the room to the sliding glass door and unlatched it. He slid it open and walked out onto the balcony. Nothing more than a three-foot deep concrete balcony that ended in a waist-high concrete wall that had a square metal railing running around the top. The air outside felt just as it did inside, warm and humid. The flashlight illuminated the faint circle in front of him and then nothing beyond.
It was quiet. Quieter than anyplace Ben had ever been before and darker. No glow reflecting off of clouds from the city that should be at the bottom of the hill. No lights at all except for his weakening flashlight. He might as well be suspended in a void with only the small piece of the balcony remaining. It didn’t even induce vertigo because there was nothing below to see.
Ben turned around and the flashlight pulled the sliding glass door and his room out of the darkness. He went inside to the nightstand and took out the Bible there. Then he carried the book out to the balcony and set it on the concrete wall. He carefully place the flashlight on the wall to illuminate the book, then he flipped it open at random.
1 Samuel 23.16. Ben ripped the page from the Bible. He worked quickly and folded the thin paper into a long narrow paper airplane. Then he picked up the airplane, and his flashlight. He threw the airplane off the balcony and kept the light on it. For a couple seconds the airplane hung suspended against the darkness. Then it vanished.
Ben put the flashlight down and flipped to another section. Ecclesiastes 10.10. He ripped the page and folded another. This second one he threw at an angle downward. It flew straight but when it got about four feet away from the building it too vanished in the darkness.
Ben closed the Bible and shut off the flashlight. Everything vanished around him except for what he could feel beneath his feet and in his hands. The edge looked clearly defined. It surrounded the core part of the building but that meant the sections of the base that extended outwards from the central core were cut off. What happened beyond the darkness? After what had happened that first day Ben hadn’t dared test it.
There’d been a man, Ted Wright. Young guy, in shape. Neatly dressed. He kept cracking dentist jokes to calm everyone down. He had volunteered to go out before Carver showed up. Walked off into the darkness and never came back. Peterson had been one that had argued that it must mean Ted got out, but Peterson hadn’t volunteered to follow him.
Ben knew it in his gut. Wise-cracking Teddy was as gone as those paper airplanes. Maybe Carver could bring him back out of it but — snick! — he wouldn’t.
By feel alone Ben walked back into his room, shut the door and returned the Bible to the nightstand. He sat down on the bed. Tomorrow he’d do some more experimenting. They needed to map the boundary, mark it somehow so that they could monitor any changes. It was better than sitting around doing nothing while Carver tested them one-by-one.
Morning. If it could be called morning when Ben couldn’t see his hand in front of his face, but his alarm had woken him up to a breakfast of pizza and water. Now he was on his way downstairs to check the boundaries of their dark prison. He left the flashlight off to conserve the batteries and made his out to the balcony overlooking the center of the hotel. Nothing but darkness. Everyone was probably still in bed. That suited him. Especially if Peterson stayed up in his room. That’d be great.
He walked along the balcony with his hand grazing the concrete wall until it ended at the elevators. They’d been lucky that no one had gotten stuck inside. He crossed the hallway to the stairs and pushed the heavy door open. It banged shut behind him, the echoes fading out in the dark.
Ben started down, thinking not for the first time, that this must be what it was like to be blind. No light whatsoever. Nothing but absolute blackness that could be hiding anything. Carver could be standing right there in the dark and Ben had a feeling that Carver didn’t mind the dark at all. Ben listened carefully but didn’t hear anything that suggested anyone else was in the stairwell with him. He took his time going down with one hand on the stairwell rail the whole way.
At the bottom Ben headed out into the main lobby. He wanted something to mark the boundary. Masking tape would be good. He flicked on the flashlight a couple times to stay on track for the front desk. He shoved the door open and made his way behind the desk. Cupboards beneath the desk hung open. Papers and other supplies lay scattered about. He hadn’t been the first to poke around back here.
He didn’t find any masking tape but he did discover a package of small yellow Post-It note pads. Those would do the trick. He stuffed them in his pocket and headed back out to the front of the lobby, keeping his flashlight on. He wanted to do this quickly. He walked out past the first set of open doors into the main foyer past the brochure rack of local attractions and the newspaper machines that still had papers from almost a week ago.
His flashlight couldn’t illuminate the doors to the outside. The light vanished as if swallowed by a black hole. He ran the dim circle along the floor until the darkness cut across it, sharp-edge and unyielding.
Holding the light on that point Ben walked right up to the darkness. He crouched and set the flashlight on the ground so that a long beam illuminated the edge between the hotel and whatever the blackness was that had engulfed them. He peeled Post-It notes off the first pad and placed them on the floor right up against that darkness. His knuckles grazed the boundary line and he felt a deep cold but no substance.
Ben used a half-dozen notes to mark this segment and then he rocked back on his heels. Cautiously he reached out with just his fingertips to try the barrier. Cold, but not unbearably so. No resistance to his touch. He pulled his hand back and his fingertips were unharmed. So what had happened to Ted Wright? Could he have gotten through? But if he had, why hadn’t anyone come to help?
Ben picked up the flashlight and stood. No way to know but he wasn’t going to try the darkness, not just yet anyway.
Instead Ben worked his way along the barrier, placing Post-It notes every few inches. The way the light cut off even though there wasn’t anything solid was unnerving. He stuck notes all along the boundary line across the lobby from one wall to the next and then stood back to survey his work. The arc was gentle, but obvious, as if a wall of darkness had gone up around the hotel.
He went back into the hotel and headed over towards the gift shop. He walked past empty candy shelves — guests or Carver? — and aimed the flashlight at the back corners. No wall of darkness interrupted the beam. Evidently the gift shop didn’t extend back far enough to intersect with the wall.
Next he tried the staff only corridor again. The place was empty and silent. He walked back towards the kitchens and staff lounge. Once again he felt as if there were silent people watching him from the darkness. Ben turned in a circle but the flashlight only showed the worn, dull brown wallpaper. Nothing else.
Just past the staff lounge the flashlight’s beam was cut off by the wall of darkness. Ben walked up close, put the flashlight down on the floor and used the Post-It notes again to mark the boundary. He played the flashlight along the dividing line on the wall. The darkness, whatever it was, bisected the entire hallway. He stuck a couple more Post-Its on the wall to mark the line there. Then he picked up the flashlight and turned it off.
The darkness was absolute. He could hear his own breathing. Ben took a breath and held it as he listened for any other sounds. Nothing. Pressing in all around him, an unnatural absence of everything. He reached out his arm towards the wall and was rewarded by his fingers touching that numbing cold. It had no substance but there was something there.
Ben imagined bone-white gnarled hands grabbing his own hand and pulling him into that cold dark. He jerked his hand away and rubbed the fingertips on his pants.
He resisted the urge to turn on the flashlight and instead turned away from the barrier and walked blindly down the hall back towards the main lobby.
Lights flashed across the lobby into his face as he emerged. A young family, father, mother and a small boy stood across the lobby. He’d seen them before, in line for food. The boy had dark hair and grinned as he pointed the light at Ben.
“That’s not him,” the mother murmured.
Ben shielded his eyes with his hand. “Good morning.”
The father coughed. “We thought maybe mister Carver —”
“I haven’t seen him.” Ben clicked his own light off. “I’m Ben. You are?”
“Matt and Trina Parker.” Matt touched his son’s head. “This is Connor.”
“What are you doing?” Trina asked.
“Looking around to see if we’ve missed anything.”
“You mean a way out?” Matt looked at his wife and back to Ben. “I could help.”
Ben shook his head. “Best you all wait in your room. If I find anything I’ll let you all know.”
Matt shook his head. “No. I’ll come with you. Trina, take Matt back to the room.”
“What?” Trina lowered her voice. “But Matt, it’s so —”
“We’ll be fine. No sense all of us blundering around in the dark.”
Ben waited. Trina sighed and took Connor’s hand. “Fine. We’ll go back.”
Connor tried to pull away. “No! A want to go with them!”
Ben shook his head. Matt touched his son’s shoulder. “Listen, go to the room and look after things there, okay?”
Connor looked at Ben and back at Matt. “But—”
Trina leaned close and kissed Matt’s cheek. “Be careful.”
“Go on now.”
They walked away, slowly. Matt turned back to Ben. “Now what?”
“I’ve already marked the line across the lobby and down the hall in the staff area back there. I was going to go into the restaurant next. I think it might extend out far enough. Then the conference areas.”
“How are you marking it?”
Ben held up the package of Post It notes.
“Oh, okay. What will that tell us?”
Ben shrugged. “Maybe nothing. It might help someone avoid walking into it. And it’ll give us an idea if the line moves.”
“You think it’ll move?”
“I don’t know but it feels like a noose around this hell hole and the thing about a noose? It tightens.”
“Right.” Matt twitched his light back towards the restaurant. “After you?”
Ben headed for the restaurant. He didn’t turn on his flashlight. Matt’s looked brighter, the batteries would probably last longer. Matt walked beside him. He flashed the light up into the silo. Ben caught a glimpse of a white face looking down from the balcony four floors up. Whoever it was pulled back before he could recognize who it was.
“Keep the light on the floor,” Ben said. “We want to see the edge when we reach it.”
“Right. Okay.” Matt pointed the flashlight at the floor. Dark brown carpet in this section around the chairs. “Why did you come here?”
“The park,” Ben answered. “I’ve on a cross-country bicycle tour. Just made the bad mistake of deciding to stay in a hotel one night.”
“Yeah.” That’s what Ben had thought the moment he walked into the hotel. Three things had convinced him to stay. First, no one told him he couldn’t bring in his bike. Second, it was already getting dark outside and he had put in a lot of miles already. Twenty more in the dark seemed too much. Plus he’d already climbed the hill to the hotel. And last, the prospect of a hot shower. Big mistake.
They left the carpeted area for the fake marble floors and the restaurant was just ahead. The sign board out front still proclaimed the grilled salmon special. The darkness swallowed everything else.
“Slowly,” Ben said. “Let’s not walk into whatever it is around the hotel.”
Together they moved into the restaurant, both of them watching the circle of light on the dark floors. They walked past the cash register and the bar deeper into the restaurant. Ben remembered seeing seating back under the windows. It seemed like the restaurant must stick far enough out to intersect the darkness surrounding the place.
Sure enough, right before the step up at the back, a line of darkness cut a sharp edge across the circle of light.
“Wow.” Matt moved the circle further across the line and back. “Look at that! What happens to the light? How can it just stop like that?”
“I don’t know.” Ben pulled out the Post It notes. “Hold the light still while I mark the boundary.”
The light steadied. “Sure. Okay. That’s just weird.”
Ben crouched down at the edge of the circle of light. He extended his hand out to that sharp edge and felt the cold on his fingertips. He pulled his hand back.
“What’s it feel like?”
“Nothing. It doesn’t feel like anything except cold.” Ben peeled off a Post It note and stuck it right down at the boundary line.
“That’s a good idea,” Matt said.
“Maybe.” Ben added another. “It might help as long as the batteries last in the flashlights. After that, not so much.”
Matt’s words cut off in a yelp. The flashlight flipped away across the restaurant, hit a table and bounced off to the floor. The light flashed across Ben’s eyes. Very aware of the barrier only inches away he pulled out his own flashlight.
Matt screamed. He heard Matt or someone crash into some chairs. Ben aimed the light towards the noise. He saw Matt’s terrified face, very pale in the light. Someone with frizzy white hair clung to his back. Then they stumbled out of the light.
Ben rose and headed towards the sound, trying to catch them in the light. Matt screamed more. Ben found him with the light and saw that the person on Matt’s back appeared to be biting his neck. Bright red blood spread down Matt’s blue shirt. Once again whoever had Matt jerked him out of the light. Ben went after them.
Ben heard a grunt and then a thud, like someone falling. His light found Matt face down on the floor. Mrs. Thompson stood beside him in the shadows with blood covering her chin. She grinned at him and ran her hands up her sides suggestively.
“Ben, dear boy. Will you help me carry this —” she kicked Matt “— up to my room?”
A deep biting chill touched Ben’s back. He turned the flashlight away from the horrific image back towards the barrier and his arm swept into that deadly chill. The light vanished, including Matt’s dropped flashlight. He lurched away from the cold and his light returned. He heard a snarl from Mrs. Thompson but before he could get the light on her the cold hit him again.
It was moving!
Ben backed away and aimed the flashlight at the floor. The line advanced steadily. He walked backwards and the light kept pace with him. He reached Matt and reached down to check on the man.
A polished black shoe and perfectly pressed blue suit leg emerged from the darkness, followed by the rest of Carver. He walked out of the barrier and looked down at Ben.
“Leave him, Benny. He’s gone. Who did it?”
Ben slowly rose. “Mrs. Thompson. What is she?”
“My problem.” A brief smile flitted across Sander’s face. His hand slid into his pocket and came back out holding something. Snick. A bright silver switchblade popped up. “Now that I know who it is I’ll take care of it.”
The line continued to advance and Carver walked forward at the same pace. Ben held his ground.
“That’s what all of this has been about? Finding her?”
Carver looked out into the darkness. “Of course. Contain, identify.” Carver grinned. “And remove.”
And then Carver disappeared into the darkness. Ben tried to follow him with the light but the man moved too fast. A second later the barrier touched Ben’s back again and he hurried forward. He ran past Matt’s body, sorry he couldn’t do anything for him, and left the restaurant. From above he heard a man shout and swear as if surprised. The cold darkness was closing in on the building. By now it must be intersecting with the rooms.
Flashlights flickered to life above like so many fireflies in the night. The lights danced around the concrete walls. Voices were raised and the hotel echoed with the sound. The smell of Matt’s blood clung to Ben and when he pointed his flashlight down he saw that he was leaving bloody footprints. He must have walked through Matt’s blood.
Ben heard more shouts and saw people pointing their lights up the central shaft. Several floors up the lights cut off. The darkness descended at the same rate it advanced inward. People started screaming and running along the balconies towards the stairwells.
“Stay calm!” Ben shouted. “Don’t panic!”
No one heard him over the din. He saw a middle-aged woman with brightly dyed red hair trip and fall. Up on the floor right below the approaching darkness a balding man climbed over the balcony and appeared to be trying to reach the next floor. He let go. Fell towards the next balcony and his hands bounced off. He screamed and tumbled as he fell eight floors down until he landed with an audible crack across the back of one of the chairs.
Ben clenched his fists. Carver. That prick Carver was behind it all of this. Okay, so Mrs. Thompson was some sort of vampire, but trapping them all here? Obviously Carver didn’t care who got hurt in the process.
Ben looked up and saw Tuyet three floors up struggling through the panicking guests.
“Hold on! Let them go past!”
Tuyet clung to the balcony as others shoved past her. Ben started towards the stairwell but people poured out into the lobby. He backed up and looked for Mrs. Thompson. He didn’t see her. Those coming down saw the body of the man who fell and backed away. Several people were crying.
Above he saw Tuyet moving now towards the stairs. He shoved his way through the thinning crowd towards the stairs. He met Tuyet there when she came down and pulled her aside.
“Are you okay?”
She wrapped her arms around him, her body thin and light. She smelled faintly of apple. She nodded against his shoulder. She drew back and ducked her head.
He squeezed her hand gently. “Don’t be. Are you okay?”
“Yes. What’s going on?”
Ben held onto her hand and led her out into the lobby. With so many using their flashlights he turned his off and stuffed it in his pocket. Several people had their lights pointed up at the balconies as they watched the impenetrable darkness descend.
“Carver’s barrier is closing in on us. He’s looking for Mrs. Thompson. Have you seen her?”
Tuyet shook her head. “Wait, Carver is doing this? Why is he looking for Mrs. Thompson?”
“She’s not what she seems. I saw her kill a man.”
Tuyet covered her mouth.
Just then a scream cut through the babble of the guests. More people started screaming and running away from the other side of the lobby. Lights flashed in Ben’s eyes. A man ran right at him. Ben braced himself so that the man hit his shoulder and bounced off. The guy staggered and ran around Ben.
“Stay here,” Ben said to Tuyet.
He plunged into the crowd, shoving his way through as people backed away from something. When he got through all he saw was another body, a woman in a auburn dress, lying on the ground with a bloodied throat. He saw Marlene standing at the edge of the crowd, pointing a flashlight out into the darkness beyond the body.
“What happened?” Ben asked. Tuyet came up behind him and touched his shoulder.
“The old woman. She attacked her,” Marlene said. “She’s gone crazy.”
Ben took out his own flashlight and stepped out away from the crowd. Tuyet tried to pull him back but he waved her off. Ben walked slowly towards the body with his flashlight on. Carver’s darkness hadn’t reached the lobby yet. Past the woman’s body was the opening into the conference areas. Ben aimed the light that way and caught a glimpse of something moving in the dark.
“Mrs. Thompson! It’s Ben, please talk to me.”
Laughter floated out of the darkness.
Ben walked around the body and deeper into the dark. “There’s nowhere to go. We’re all trapped here. Come out.”
Another throaty chuckle from the dark ahead. Ben hesitated. Where was Carver and his silver switchblade? What was the man going to do? Kill her? What if she had already killed Carver? But then if she did that wouldn’t it mean that the darkness would go away?
Ben walked deeper into the dark beneath the balconies, into the wide hallway. On either side were conference rooms and ahead a wide staircase that led down into more conference areas. Except Carver’ blackness cut off the stairs. A flash of white in his light drew Ben’s attention towards the conference room on his right.
The light illuminated a woman standing in the doorway. Mrs. Thompson, except her skin wasn’t wrinkled anymore and her blood-splattered dress clung to firm breasts. More blood smeared across her full lips. She was young again. She smiled at Ben and licked her lips.
“You, my dear boy, are an unexpected treat.”
Ben shivered. He didn’t have any weapon. No way to fight her. He kept the light on her. “If we stop Carver will the darkness go away?”
She tilted her head to the side. “You’d help me?”
Carver stepped forward out of the dark conference room behind her. Mrs. Thompson gasped and her back arched, thrusting her chest forward. She screamed and spun around. Her hand lashed out, long nails ripping out Carver’ throat. He blinked and dropped to his knees.
Carver’ silver switchblade stuck out of her back. Ben ran forward and grabbed the knife.
It felt like ice burning his hand. He yanked it free. Mrs. Thompson turned around but he was ready for it and ducked beneath her swing. He rose up and plunged the knife up beneath her breast bone, seeking her heart. She gasped.
Ben slid his other arm around her and pulled her close. He shoved the knife up harder. She shuddered against him. Their eyes met.
“Dear boy, why?”
“Really? You have to ask?” he whispered.
She went limp in his arm, forcing the knife even deeper. Ben lowered her to the floor beside Carver’ body. He pulled the knife free. Blood covered the silver and dripped to the floor. He crouched down and used her dress to wipe the blade clean.
Then he stood and — snick — retracted the blade. He pocketed the knife.
Light flooded the hallway as the ceiling lights came on. He looked down at the floor but the bodies were gone. Not really gone, he knew. Left in the other place. Since he took up the switchblade he understood it all. Carver had shifted all of the guests into a pocket in the other place. Now they had returned and the pocket had collapsed, taking the bodies along with it. Ben walked back out into the lobby where the guests were already leaving. Some going back to their rooms but others just headed out towards the doors.
Tuyet came towards him and folded her hands together. She looked at him with big dark eyes. “What happened?”
“They’re both gone.”
She nodded. An awkward silence grew between them. Ben could say something, he knew. Make some effort but he understood Carver now. Mrs. Thompson hadn’t been the only one of these creatures. There were others out there. How could he just forget that? The switchblade gave him the ability to fight them. He knew how to walk in the darkness and shadows now.
Tuyet looked away for a second and that’s all it took for him to move into the shadows. Just enough to hide from view. She looked back and gasped. From her perspective he had vanished.
“Ben?” She looked all around, bit her lip, and then turned and walked away towards the elevators.
Ben trailed along. He’d go up to his own room, sticking to the shadows, and get his bike and gear. That’s all he needed. A way to get around, until he found another one. He had a feeling he needed to go north.
This story is the 60th weekly short story release, written in September 2010. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.
If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Truth-Seeker.