Each of his steps is echoed by the tap of his cane.
There are hundreds of stairs leading up to the Erato Inn, each of which are perfectly maintained. As the visitor makes his way upwards, the Inn reveals more of its illuminated windows, dirtied yellow eyes which watch his struggle at every shallow step.
Autumn’s colors have long since come and gone for the crops surrounding the Erato Inn's hill. All that’s left are haycocks, innumerable as obelisks in a graveyard. In a clear sky, a waxing moon the color of bright amber grows larger by the hour. The moon lends its bloody glow to every statue’s silhouette lining the sides of the path. The visitor stops every step or so to appreciate the Greek muses, fauns, and other mythological creatures.
At the top of the steps, two busts of blindfolded, bare women gesture the visitor closer to the front door. With a sheepish glance around the empty courtyard, he stops to run his hand along one of the lady's cheeks. The smoothe granite with a silver, marble finish is untouched by algae or weathering despite the area's propensity for heavy rains throughout the year.
The Inn’s door knocker is the head of a third blindfolded women, her tongue stretching out of her mouth into a hanging spiral.
“Just like the pictures," he mutters to himself. With a grin the visitor adjusts his glasses, grasps the tongue and raps on the door.
Despite the historic age of the structure, the door is utterly silent as it opens inward.
“Mr. Pawn," a woman greets him, her petite frame not exactly matching the confidence in her voice. She walks around a front desk that is several sizes too large for the sparse paperwork and single computer resting on top. “Your entrance has been long heralded. Welcome to the Erato Inn; might I get you a cup of something warm? Tea?" The excitement in her voice mimics her eyes—all at once concerned and thrilled for her guest's first impressions.
“Thank you! Consider me enchanted. Call me Thomas, please, and yes. Do you have decaf coffee? Splendid. No, no, I'll handle my coat. I insist—you're too kind." Thomas hangs his coat on a nearby coatrack, noticing that there are only two others there despite the dozens of unused hooks. He sets his suitcase down. “And who might you be?"
“Hostess Gorma, Valentine Gorma. At your service."
“Oh really?" Thomas chuckles. “Good one. Very, very clever." Thomas leans on his cane and wags a finger at her.
“What? What's clever? Oh, is it my name? Yes, always been rather peculiar." Valentine's voice has an unmistakably English slant despite the Inn being located in northern Oregon.
“No, no. It's just that I've been reading up on this place. I'm here to research for a book. Nonfiction—well, historical fiction, really—I'm not sure yet, that's what I mean to say. Ahum! No, well, what I originally meant is that there was a maid who lived here by the name of Valentine Gormek in 1806, just a decade after this establishment opened. So, this must be some kind of trick, right? What with it being October and all. You did some research of your own, you found out I wrote horror so you thought, ‘oh well, this will be fun. Give him a spook first thing'. Right?"
“Ahuh ..." Gorma finds it difficult to hold in her laughter, especially after enduring one of the longest, most outlandish tangents upon introduction. Her reaction folds Thomas' confidence in on itself. He goes from arrogant, deducing intellectual to blushing adolescent in a moment’s deflation. “Mr. Pawn, I think you've had a long flight. My father's last name was Gorma, just as his father's was before him. But, you're right, Valentine Gormek is a key part in this inn's history. She represents the first of many odd occurrences that draw in so many tourists like yourself. Unfortunately, the mystery ends there. My father wanted to keep her spirit alive. So,” she says with splayed hands, “he named me after her. The last name is mere happenstance. My apologies for disappointing you."
Thomas clears his throat. “Right. Ah, well. This has been fun. I'll just see myself out. Thank you, it was a pleasure."
The hostess laughs, but shuts Thomas' feigned attempt at leaving through the front door. A gust of wind sweeps through an open window and slams it harder than Valentine intended.
“Oh my! Well, Mr. Pawn, consider yourself having your first encounter with the supernatural. Speaking of names, I do believe yours is even stranger."
Thomas is eyeing the expanse of the inn’s entryway. The first room opens up into two lounges complete with simmering fireplaces and armchairs. Bookshelves line the walls, one with a rolling ladder. The inside is just as polished as the steps, though he's not caught eye of any maids or staff besides Valentine. In fact, as he ponders his response, he realizes that he has not heard a single creak throughout the entire structure since his arrival.
“Rather empty in here, isn’t it?” he blurts out. “Wow, that was so rude. Ignore that. Yes, well, my father was a chess grandmaster. When he became married, he changed his last name. Now I am damned to the fond sentiment of a game I've always hated. Something of a selfish bastard, really."
“Not one for chess, then, Mr. Pawn?" Valentine asks, walking away towards a nearby mahogany staircase with a gesture to follow. “You may leave your suitcase at the door. It will be delivered to your room before you've settled in."
“By who? I don’t see anybody else here."
“Our staff is quite busy, Mr. Pawn. Always busy."
“And, no. I despise the game."
“Why is that?"
“For starters, there's no luck involved."
When Valentine laughs, it seems to fill in every silence in the mansion. A deep, velvet laugh that starts with a high, almost shrill giggle. She isn’t afraid to make it carry far, either. Thomas decides he wants to hear as many as he can earn before he leaves.
Valentine gestures to a door in one of the halls. The polished wood matches the banisters and stairs; its sheen emphasized by the candles burning in the candelabra sticking from the walls. The candelabra are held up by gold arms, and not a drop of wax is on them. Just as Thomas reaches out to touch one, Valentine opens up Room 20.
“But you've neglected to change your own name when you had the chance," Valentine observes, pointing to his ring finger.
Thomas turns from examining the scratched surface of a desk that he's already placed a pocket journal and fountain pen on. “What's that?" he mutters, fingering the deep gouges in the wood. Then the remark hits him. Valentine is now just behind him. Her demeanor has shifted as well.
Once again, Thomas becomes aware how the silence soaks up their words like dried earth.
“My wife," he says, “she, ah, passed on. Many years ago. We were married quite young, you see." Thomas' brows furrow at himself; he so seldom softens his words. It also wasn't many years ago, but a mere three. The ring had left a faded mark on his finger.
“I am so sorry. I hope it was a kind death, if there is such a thing."
She had actually stopped to look him in the eye when she said it, unlike most others.
Thomas pauses, unable to find a response. Before he can think of anything to say, images of Valentine shutting the door and stripping down for him flood his mind, so heavily that he feels forced to look out the window into the courtyard. A shadow darts between the two blindfolded statues and disappears into a bush. Thomas’s attention is so strained that he hardly notices this.
“Is this how you often greet your guests, Mrs. Gorma? Asking the more 'tender' questions?" Thomas feels a sharp tearing of both regret and guilt at delivering the question with such coldness. He allows himself to turn around again, a notch of adrenaline giving him a touch of boldness to meet her gaze.
“I prefer to understand my guests, so that I might better meet their limitations and preferences. Getting the difficult details out of the way allows the Erato Inn to serve you better, I assure you. It is my job to pry, Mr. Pawn."
“I'm sorry, I simply wasn't prepared for the bluntness. Though, I do usually prefer it."
“Not at all. You've had a long trip." Valentine pauses; the corner of a smirk tugs her mouth and a glint catches in her eye. “The Erato Inn has always prided itself on an intimate relationship with its guests. It is quite polarizing, as you can imagine."
“Of course." Thomas swallows. “Feel free to pry deeper in the morning. You serve breakfast, yes?"
“Oh yes. Anything you like, anytime, Mr. Pawn."
“So," Thomas clears his throat. “What's the cat's name?"
“Cat?" Valentine tilts her head.
“I saw a cat from the window. She sprinted across the courtyard."
“A stray, maybe," Valentine shrugs before stepping back into the hallway. “Will you be needing anything else?"
“No, no, I think I'll be—oh! My suitcase."
Valentine shakes her head. "Ah! How silly of me. Maybe you're not the only one who is tired. Here, let me grab it for you."
“No, no, allow me." Thomas rushes to the door.
“That's not necessary, really, it's right here."
“But it's quite heavy and there's—" In his haste, Thomas trips on his own cane and falls forward into the hallway, where his suitcase is sitting just beside the door. Valentine has her hand around the the briefcase’s handle, but drops it to help him instead.
Thomas glimpses the back of a servant in a black waistcoat and white button down shirt at the top of the stairs. The man's swift descent away from the door is stopped. He turns to see the source of the loud crash, and Thomas's chest spasms at the face that glances at him.
"U-ugh!" Thomas' hand shoots up to cover his eyes, though they’ve already clenched shut.
“Mr. Pawn? What is it?"
When he pulls his hand away, he sees Valentine's smooth, pale cheeks are just inches from him as she helps him up. Her lipstick is a bright red that is several decades out of fashion, but it makes looking at them irresistible all the same. Just watching her expression change soothes him. Her hand slinks away from his arm, trembling.
“It was ... I just. One of your staff just startled me. God I must look like such an idiot."
“Not at all. It is very late and your mind has probably provoked all kinds of fantasies out of this place. But it’s just a museum, really. What did you see?" Valentine asks.
“What? Oh, it was … ah …" Thomas is looking down at Valentine now. The heat in her breath is enough to dizzy him and make him forget. One of his hands is still clutching onto her jacket, a pinstripe suit inspired by Victorian waistcoats. He remembers to pull it away, but she didn’t seem to be quick for it. “I mean, he was ..."
“Oh that was an odd question, wasn’t it?" Valentine says with a shake of her head. The waves of her short, black hair had fallen from her knot and brush against her cheeks. “That must have been Travis. He's the night shift attendant."
Thomas swallows. “Travis. Right. Just Travis." His attempt at a laugh comes out as a question.
“Mr. Pawn, I insist that you get some rest."
“You are just saying that because you're tired yourself and I'm your last customer." Thomas' flirtation comes out garbled, not because he's tired, but because there's a part of him that is still shivering from what he just witnessed.
“Who says it was my job to escort you to your room?" Valentine retorts. "Here. No, no, we've learned our lesson, haven't we? Here's your suitcase," the hostess says while plopping it down on the bed before returning to the doorway. “Now I advise you to get some rest. I'll keep the old, old Valentine away from your halls while you sleep. I promise. But if you need me, here's this." Valentine hands him a sleek, black remote with a single button that fits in his palm.
“What is this? A panic button in case Travis comes back?"
“In case you need anything, Mr. Pawn,” Valentine snickers. “Anything."
“Thomas. You can call me Thomas."
“Thomas," Valentine grins, shutting the door slowly. "Oh, and Thomas?"
“It is Ms. Gorma, not Mrs. Enjoy your coffee."
The door shuts.
Thomas doesn't move as he listens to the last of Valentine's steps; they fade not in hard echoes, but in a soft, sifting sort of sound. He watches the steam rise up from a small cappuccino on his desk. He takes a sip.
“Nope. Definitely not dreaming,” he sighs. “Damn good coffee, though.”
As Thomas is unpacking, he notices that the light under his door winks out, the candles not being doused one by one, but all at once. Then the Erato Inn is engulfed by a darkness as heavy as its silence.
Once he has finished packing away his clothes, he twiddles his fountain pen between his fingers as he looks down at a page dated for today in his journal. For the first time in many years, he is nervous to help the words solidify themselves. It will engrave the memories into reality, and he’s not all too certain that’s a good idea. Not all too certain whether it happened the way he remembers. For example, had Valentine had the cappuccino delivered to his room before they left the main hall?
After resolving to inscribe the experience in the morning, as he settles under the sheets of the bed, he finds his thoughts wandering to Valentine. What her final duties might be when the guests go to sleep. How she looks when she sleeps. That final parting word was an open invitation, wasn’t it? Then he can’t resist letting the innocent pondering slip into fantasies, as the alternative is listening to a silence so deep that the slightest movement beyond his door is unmistakable. And though Thomas doesn’t want to admit it to himself …
There have been several.