Another short story this week, in lieu of a report from Rome…
The car swerved across the highway as Henley fought against the steering wheel to bring the Chevy under control. He narrowly missed the truck coming the other way, its horn blasting through the silence of the desert. Henley rammed his foot hard on the brake and the car skidded to a halt on the gravel verge. His heart pounded and he struggled to catch his breath as he unpeeled his shaking fingers from the steering wheel. He opened the window and let the cool wind freshen his burning face.
Henley had been driving since 8am, after a disappointing breakfast in a diner that was nothing like the cool, hip ‘50s diners of the movies. This one was unwelcoming, served bitter coffee (but free refills..) and cooked hash browns he could have built a house with. It hadn’t set him up well for the 400-mile drive to his next destination: Barstow, a small town on the edge of the desert, to pay homage to the great Hunter S. Thompson.
His journey had taken even longer after several hasty unscheduled stops to empty himself of his crappy breakfast, crouched nervously behind scantily thorned bushes or the occasional sign, hoping a rattlesnake didn’t attack him while he was incapacitated.
The motel the previous night hadn’t provided much sleep, thanks to a retro vibrating mattress that shuddered at random points throughout the night, usually just after he’d finally dropped off from the previous quake. This lack of sleep, combined with the violent bouts of diarrhoea, had exhausted him and he had only feebly resisted as his eyes had grown heavy, hypnotised by the road stretching for miles in front of him and the lights of the cars driving towards him. He’d descended into the deep cavern of sleep, until the blare of the truck’s horn had violently yanked him back into consciousness.
Driving from New York to LA was a lifetime’s ambition for Henley. He wanted to see the real good ol’ US of A, get his kicks on Route 66, taste mom’s apple pie. Live the American dream. The reality, however, was turning out to be slightly different. Any kitsch places that he was lucky enough to stumble across had seemed staged as if they were just cashing in on an old legend that had barely existed in the first place. Also, he hadn’t realised just how great the distances were and how dull much of the scenery would be. Ok, so the Grand Canyon was impressive and it was cool to see Las Vegas all lit up and imagine himself in Ocean’s Eleven, but there had also been a hell of lot of long hours’ solid driving in between those scenic bits. Long hours. On his own. With only an iPod full of classic rock to keep him company. He still had another 90 miles to go to Barstow and darkness had fallen suddenly.
It was time to stop for the night.
Henley slowly pulled back onto the highway. He needed to find somewhere to stay; surely there must be a place soon. He kept the windows open, the warm smell of wild sage rising up through the air. He had been driving for ten minutes or so when up ahead in the distance, he saw the shimmering light of a neon HOTEL sign. He drove into the almost empty parking lot and stopped next to an old white Mercedes parked in front of the reception.
The hotel was an incongruous sight to find in the middle of the Californian desert. A huge, three story building, it had a brooding, black facade, pointed arches and four tall towers reaching to the sky. Gargoyles leered down at him, their hideous faces mocking him. What was it with Americans and their theme hotels? In Vegas he’d stayed in an Egyptian one with mummies and a small pyramid in his room.
Whatever. All he wanted was to go to sleep, no matter what the hotel looked like. The reception was in darkness, the door locked. He tugged on the old-fashioned bell pull, its chimes ringing out in the cool night. No-one answered, he rang again. Oh for god’s sake, he’d have to keep driving.
He moved away, heading back to the car. “Welcome,” came a voice behind him. “Are you looking for a room?”
No, I’m here for architecture tips, thought Henley as he turned back to the door. A tall, slim woman with long blonde hair stood in the doorway, holding up a candle in a Tiffany-style glass candlestick. She wore a full length, flowing dress.
“Yes, are you open?”
“We’ve had a power cut, there’s no electricity. We haven’t had power for ages. God knows when it’ll be back on.”
“I just need a bed, something to eat and drink.”
“You can always find that here. It’s $60 for the night.”
Henley hesitated – was this a good idea or was did it look too weird? – before exhaustion won out and he followed her into the dark building, through a maze of corridors and stairs, the light from the candle briefly lighting myriad doorways and passages leading god knows where. He could hear the faint sound of music mingled with laughter and the occasional excited shout calling from far away.
“Sounds like fun,” he said.
“Oh, that’s just some friends. They like to dance in the courtyard. Do you dance? It’s very therapeutic. Helps you remember, helps you forget.”
Christ, she didn’t only look like an old hippy, she spoke like one too.
The woman showed him into his room: a huge black cast iron bed stood in the middle of the room, surrounded by lit church candles in tall candlesticks. A bottle of pink champagne cooled in an ice bucket on the bedside table and beads of condensation twinkled in the candlelight.
“Ummm, is this the right room? Looks like someone’s already in here.”
“No, no. This is for you. We like to make all our guests feel welcome.”
Welcome? More like a health and safety nightmare.
“Oh, well, thank you. I don’t really drink champagne though, more of a Budweiser man myself.”
“We don’t stock beer. No call for it. Haven’t done beer since ’69. I’ll leave you to get comfortable. I’ll be in the bar if you want to come down.”
She left and Henley lay on the bed with relief. He yawned loudly and gave a large, exaggerated stretch feeling some of the tension in his back dissipating. As he looked up, he realised he was staring at himself in a large, smoked mirror on the ceiling. He sat up with a jolt, suddenly wide awake. Maybe he should go for that drink after all. It might help him sleep then he’d head off first thing in the morning.
Henley picked up one of the candles and blew out the others. No point letting the place burn down, even if the owner was one can short of a six-pack. His route back to reception was complicated by the darkness and the vast number of corridors and staircases. He didn’t pass any other guests but he could still hear the shouts and music from the party. He tried to head towards the sound and eventually found himself outside a room on the ground floor, from where he could hear the music blaring. He opened the door and entered the room with the candle held high.
Henley froze, staring at the scene in front of him. His brain told him to turn and run as fast as he could but his legs were unable to obey the instruction.
A huge reptilian creature, at least twelve feet long, covered in red scales lay on a table in the middle of the room. It was encircled by figures dressed in white, flowing robes, screaming and frenziedly stabbing at the beast with steel daggers, their blades plunging into the creature’s body as blood splattered through the air. Their robes were patterned with the bright crimson of fresh blood and their faces dripped with sweat.
The monster’s white fangs glinted in the candlelight as it snarled and shrieked. It thrashed its head from side to side and attempted to lash out with its long talons and whip like tail but it was spread-eagled across the table; thick rope around its legs and tail held it tightly anchored to the table legs. Its stomach and chest were swimming in blood and its guts were visible through the slashes and wounds.
The beast lifted its head off the table and stared at Henley with its glittering black eyes. Henley desperately wanted to look away but the monster’s glare held him transfixed. Although he could feel the pure evil emitting from the monster, he felt that the beast was pleading with Henley to help him. Surely nothing deserved to die like this?
At that moment one of the figures in white caught sight of him standing in the doorway. “Friends, behold. We have fresh blood!”
Henley’s body finally caught up with his brain and he leapt back though the doorway, slamming it shut behind him. What the fuck had he stumbled into? He began to run towards where he hoped the reception and the hell out of here were but the candle’s flame went out and he threw the candlestick to the ground. He put his shaking hand against the wall and groped his way along the corridor, trying to block out the horrific images of what he had just witnessed.
Henley progressed slowly in the darkness, trying to quell the panic he felt in every inch of his body. Behind him was the sound of hushed voices getting closer and closer. He thought he could see a faint light emitting from the end of the corridor. Oh Jesus, please let it be the way out. He turned the corner into the reception area, where more candles were placed on the desk. A sob of relief caught in his throat and he sped up towards the door. He pulled down on the handle and pushed against the door but it refused to open. He frantically rattled the handle up and down, throwing his shoulder against the door.
He screamed as he felt a hand on his shoulder. Tears flooded down his face and the air disappeared from his lungs as he sank to the ground, his hand still clinging to the door handle. He finally lifted his head to see what fresh hell would face him now.
A short, tanned man, dressed in a porter’s uniform, looked down at Henley and smiled.
“Help me, please help me,” Henley begged.
“Relax,” the man said in a deep, reassuring tone, “you can check out any time you like. But you can never leave.”
The classic rock fans amongst you will find this easy: can you Name That Tune?? No prizes for the first correct answer but you can feel smug all weekend.