The hillocks and fields around the Erato Inn are alight with dew shimmering in the fogged sunrise. A murder of crows peck at rotted corn husks and drooping stalks, taking wing here and there to reposition themselves. Freshly shaven and already dressed, Thomas looks out from his window, imagining how unsettling the atmosphere had been just hours before. He hadn't slept well, but the precious few hours had ameliorated the paranoia that had been preying on him the night before.
When he sits down to journal about last night, he goes into detail describing his experience seeing Travis from across the hall, the explanation taking up a page alone. The last sentence, however, passes it off to sleep deprivation and the atmosphere. You can hear the lingering doubt in the way his pen skips and pauses between words. He ends his reflection with confessions about Valentine and how, for the first time after his wife's death, the fantasies had descended on him with an unprecedented urgency.
After capping his pen, Thomas looks about his room. "The hell?" he mutters.
A knock arrives at his door.
“Yes?" Thomas manages to get to his feet and approaches the door, stopping to look at his hand reaching for the locking mechanism, already switched. He opens the door. Seeing Valentine's face triggers the untimely arrival of imagery from last night's dreams he'd had of her. “Oh, good morning," he says.
“And to you! I hope you don't mind, I heard that you'd been up for some time in your room. I thought I might check in, make sure you have everything you need. Are you all right?" she asks.
“Yes. Well, no. Not quite." He fiddles with the lock, watching the deadbolt slide in and out of its chamber while Valentine, dressed in a similar suit as yesterday, raises an eyebrow. “Did one of your staff come in to collect my cappuccino cup while I was ... sleeping? I don't see it in here and I locked my door last night."
“Ah. That must have been Isabelle. She's our night cleaner. She can be a bit zealous sometimes with dishes. Likes to keep track of who has what. Quiet as a mouse, though."
“You're kidding, but it’s funny, because your face says you are completely serious."
“Why wouldn’t I be?"
“Look," Thomas rubs his eyes and inhales deeply, “I understand that this place has a bizarre history. But where in the hell does a hotel get off on letting its workers into the bedrooms of its guests in the middle of the night? It’s just, well, creepy!"
Valentine seems offended, but something shifts and she sighs with a nod in understanding. “Understandable. Most people don’t notice; Isabelle must have forgotten to lock the door again. Our owner is not always so keen on keeping his workers in line. He isn't around as often as he once was. The truth is that Isabelle can be rather eccentric. The other cleaners don’t do that. She is not quite, well, 'normal'."
“Special needs opportunity sort of thing?"
“Yes and no, and I’d prefer to leave it at that."
“And that’s all right, but would you please inform her not to stalk into my room in the small hours of the night? Or, better yet, whenever the door is locked? Just thinking about it is enough to set me on edge."
“Certainly. I can't promise she won't try, though." Thomas can't help but feel uneasy as the hostess laughs at this, because it certainly doesn't sound like a joke. "But you must be hungry! Our chefs are just now cooking breakfast for the staff. The food always tastes better when the pans are still hot."
“There's no internet connection," Thomas says before pocketing his phone. Valentine is sitting across from him, the only other occupied seat out of the sixty or so tucked into one of the most luxurious dining tables Thomas has ever seen. A set of candle holders matching the one in the hallways decorate the surface. Neat bouquets of limbs. Several arms are holding up empty platters or vases with freshly picked flowers. “No signal either. Huh."
“Will that be a problem?" Valentine asks. “We find that providing internet surface distracts our guests from our more unique accommodations."
Thomas nudges his plate away, only a bite remaining of the eggs, bacon, potatoes and biscuit that he'd been served. Valentine had watched every bite, so much so that the self-consciousness it inspired nearly lost him his appetite. The meal briefly made the dining hall smell of rosemary, seared pork and butter, before air of the countryside through the upper windows ventilated it out. At the lowest levels, vanilla and oak predominated, an aroma of aging books and words left alone for centuries. “As long as there is a phone I can access in an emergency, it isn't important. Valentine. Not that I don't enjoy your company, but don't you have other duties to attend to? I can’t imagine I am your most pressing task."
Valentine, herself, had been the one who delivered his meal from the kitchen. She was the one who guided him through the intricate halls and, when they sat down, made sure he had cutlery and a cloth napkin. Even the kitchen she'd come from seemed to be lacking in much clanking or banter from a cooking crew. As far as Thomas can tell, they only need one cook. He also noticed coffee grounds on her trousers, so she had brewed the coffee as well.
“During the autumn season I find myself with a glaring lack of tasks. But," she clears her throat, "you needn't suffer my pressence any longer. I'll leave you to your reserach, Mr. Pawn. Please, enjoy the rest of your morning in peace." The hostess rises and pushes in her chair in a practiced motion, starting to walk away.
“Wait, wait, wait," Thomas blurts out, a little louder than intended. "I was only curious, really. I didn't mean anything by it." Thomas is taken by the evident dent left in her expression. She is slower to meet his eyes and, when they do, they seek some affirmation to mend the setback. “Really."
“Please, stay and join me. I have some questions and I really can't imagine anyone better to ask. I don’t think I’ve quite recovered from meeting Travis last night. You must have worked here for quite some time."
“So do you mind if I ask some sensitive questions regarding the business?" Thomas pulls out his journal and pen, setting aside the plate to make room. The hostess glances at the entry from last night before sitting back down. "Really. It was just a misunderstanding. You are spoiling me by escorting me through my stay. I'm just here to experience the place, so really, this is perfect. I am the one who should be worried about taking up too much of you time"
Again, Valentine nods. "Would you like some more coffee before the interview begins?"
“Actually, that would be amazing. And, yes, this is an interview of the highest caliber. I hope you are prepared."
The hostess goes to a nearby table outfitted with cream, sugar cubes, and a coffee pot on a heating plate. Thomas is the only one who's made an effort to drink some. He still hasn't seen the other two or three guests.
“You don't drink coffee?" he asks as she refills his mug.
“Unfortunately it's lost its flavor for me. But watching you drink it is satisfaction enough."
Normally, Thomas would make it a point to compliment the coffee but he's not certain he's that good at lying. He seldom adds anything to his morning cup, but now he is spooning in cubes by the handful and cream makes up half the beverage. The caffeine is purely a necessity. A stark contrast to the cappuccino.
“So," Thomas makes some marks on a fresh page, “how does this place stay afloat? It's no secret that when I arrived there were only three other parked cars in the guest lot. One of them was covered in leaves and looked to be abandoned."
Valentine nodded. “The autumn season has always been difficult on us. Winter and summer is a popular time for both tourists and couples looking to get away from their routines. That is what this place is. An escape from reality. A home you didn't know you had."
“Full staff, candles replaced every evening, hundreds of them, right? Running water, quality meals, and an excellent, attentive hostess to boot ... how can the Inn afford all of this with such low rates and no customers? I pay, what, a hundred dollars a night to be here? I might consider making this permanent."
“You wouldn't be the first to do so," Valentine says with a bit of pride, looking softer now that Thomas' flattery caused her to roll her eyes. She glances towards the large windows in the dining hall, where the rolling hills just outside lead to a chapel with only a thin, faded path to guide the way. “Our finances we prefer to keep private, even to interviews that may spread our name to other guests. You're welcome to speculate, however."
“Fair enough. So, why haven't you posted listings over the internet? I found out about the Erato Inn in a tourist book published in 1970 but there isn't a single Google search that mentions your name. No website, no reviews. It's like you're in another era. When I found your number in a directory and phoned you, I thought it was either a miracle or too good to be true. I feared that some chain hotel had replaced it but kept the telephone number. But, no, right here in the middle of Oregon countryside, almost too deep to be called nowhere, stands this little gem of a time immemorial. Polished, maintained, upkept and ... living just like any other normal business. Your staff clearly has the passion to make this place shine. So why not advertise?" Thomas takes another sip of his 'coffee'. "A few blog posts on the right websites would turn this place into the Disneyland of haunted manisons."
That final remark leaves an acrid stench to Valentine’s nose. She then reaches into her pocket for something only to stop, her lips set in a tight line. "Do you smoke?
“Nicotine and I have a long history. But, no, not consistently. Especially not inside a place like this."
“What? Why not?"
“Well, usually smoking indoors is not allowed."
“Forgive me, an hold habit I suppose. The owner never much cared for that rule."
“Not at all, go on.”
“Well, it was the founder's vision for the Erato Inn to be a home to unexpected guests. It is meant to be a place of rejuvination in touch with the past. In the philosophy of Greek Muses, one does not harness inspiration, they become a vessel for it. The 'it' being what they called 'daemons', whom possess their artists. It's all metaphorical, of course, but you’re familiar, aren’t you? Excellent. Our owner prefers to keep this place true to its original ideals, as do I. Modern advertising simply doesn't align with that. How will our guests become enchanted by this place if they come from the horrendous machine that is today's modernity, wishing to document every artifact and corner with a picture wherein their own faces take up the most of the frame? Selfies, I mean."
“You have a point there," Thomas chuckles. “But what is the purpose of staying true to an ideal if it does not allow for the place itself to live on?"
“Passion, Thomas, is at the heart of most things foolish and beautiful. Oftentimes, a little foolhardiness goes a long way in making something beautiful."
Thomas makes a note to plagiarize that sentence for another work later.
“Maybe the Erato Inn will die one of these days," Valentine says, “but it will die unadulterated." That spark that was in her eyes the first moment Thomas walked through the door is there now. The hostess is off in her head when the writer caps his pen.
“I do think I romanticize the old and the traditional more than others as well, perhaps not as much as you. Is that why you work here?"
“Partially, yes," she says. “I think the outside world moves too quickly for me."
“And all alone? You're not married, are you?"
“No, but I am not alone. I have my staff."
“I can imagine you might live here as well."
Suddenly Thomas feels like a child left alone in a house for the first time. His heart thunders a little as he imagines reaching across that divide of isolation and kissing her. He imagines that she will taste like countless dark nights spent reading alone, of a singular existence that so few experience.
“Do you have a partner of any kind?" he asks.
It was her resulting grin that made Thomas no longer felt like a guest of the Erato Inn, rather of Valentine's home and a confidant of her strange life. More importantly, the newest fixation of her long, empty days.
“Would you take a walk with me , Thomas?” she asks. “I have something to show you.”