One step at a time. That's all that Thomas can think as he gets up in the hallway. Rainwater has seeped in through the walls, the molded floors. What was once antique wallpaper is now a cracked, colorless skin peeling off. The chandelier in the entryway has since fallen from the roof, which now boasts a hole instead of a mantle with which to hold the prized light source.
“I'm ... I'm okay," Thomas tells himself, knowing every bit the opposite.
He clutches onto the jagged edges of what was once Valentine's desk. One of the splinters digs into his hand, causing blood to quickly pool and drip down his fingers. But the pain hardly registers. Thomas spews out vomit. What splatters is clear, thick saliva, but there is no food. Come to think of it, he realizes that he hasn't used the restroom for several days, either.
Why are all these details coming to me now?
“Need to leave. Yes. I need to go." His thoughts are clouded, but Thomas manages to speak this to himself. The adrenaline has long since worn off. In a distant part of the Inn, a heavy plank of wood, perhaps a crucial support beam, snaps off and collapses. The crash shakes throughout in a shuddering heartbeat.
In the corner of Thomas' eyes, there are silhouettes approaching. As he looks at them, trying to focus their details, they flit to the corners of his vision as if playing a game of hide-and-seek, not willing to get caught just yet. What he manages to piece together in his peripherals are the edges of faces. Eyes, tear-stricken cheeks, dirties skin, open wounds. Gaping mouths with silent screams.
Then, an audible one that rips through the air behind him.
Thomas jumps and whirls around.
The mute and blind maid sweeps through his body and disappears behind him. That motion nearly floors Thomas. The way she tore through him felt like a fist snatching some of his entrails.
“I need to leave. I need to leave,” Thomas tells himself. He makes a move towards the door, but his hands shoot out and grip the frame. The rotting wood crumbles in his fist.
The writer turns around, ignoring the specters descending around him. Glass, furniture, and fallen paintings crunch under his feet. As he bounds up the staircase, whole steps crack beneath his weight.
Thomas is nearly at the top.
Travis appears and the servant pushes him backward. The shove is hard enough to send Thomas not just back down the stairs, but to briefly suspend him in the air.
No more silence. A cacophony of starved souls. That's what the silence was. A plead for sustenance. A lure. I can hear them, now. And they're here for me.
Thomas’ body crashes through the floorboards, creating a mouth that leads to the cellars beneath the Inn. As he hangs there, bleeding hands gripping the edges of the planks, Thomas grunts to pull himself up. Beneath him, he catches the glimmer of innumerable eyes peering up at him, each pair shining from the moonlight now seeping through the opening.
Now he feels their hands. Fingers clutch at his feet.
Thomas protests, his screams boiling louder with rage rather than fear. Another hand finds his foot, yanking harder. He slips that much closer into the cellar. A pair of teeth attempt to gnaw through his shoes.
A hand slick with rainwater grips Thomas' wrist.
“Don't look at them!" Valentine says. “Just look at me, sweetheart. Look right here."
Thomas’ expression is drowned with the utmost desperation. A disbelief so heavy it feels like madness. There are tears slipping down his face as he says, “I can't wake up, Valentine. You said it was just a nightmare. But I can't wake up."
“I know," she whispers, pulling him up. “Just look at me."
The longer they hold still in the middle of that entryway, the harder the storm crashes against the Inn. It's hailing now, creating an inescapable din punctuated by the occasional window fracturing from the icy pellets.
“Tell me I'm asleep back at the cemetery. We just had sex and you are watching me move in my sleep, right?" Thomas squeezes his eyes shut. There are growls from the cellar beneath him, the rush of feet as they scamper off somewhere else. To a staircase that leads to them.
“I can tell you that, Thomas, but I don't think it will help you," she says. “You are beyond that, now.”
When Thomas opens his eyes again, Valentine's face is half-bitten by death. The white corner of a skull is peaking through her jaw and boasting unmarred teeth. One of her sockets is missing an eye, and the other is unwavering and pale. The hand that is clutching his lacks skin and is wrapped in clothes closer to dust than anything. The bones squeeze tighter around his arm.
“Valentine," Thomas chokes, “I'm losing my mind. I ... need to leave. I'm so sorry. It isn’t your fault."
“No, no, sweetheart, it is,” she insists. “You are just too clever for this place. Hey now, it's still just me. You don't have to be afraid. I'm not like them. The others."
“What do you mean?"
“Did you really think I was real, Thomas? Not real I suppose, but, alive. Oh god, look at you. You're bleeding so much and here I am talking about myself." The hostess raises a skeletal hand to the deep gauge on his forehead and presses against it.
“What do you mean? Of course I thought—"
“That doesn’t matter. This isn’t about me. Just don't look away, okay? Think of that first moment we met."
“But—the people here—I have to leave. I can't stay here. I have to—"
“Just trust me. You once entered this home and saw every candle and detail exactly in place. You are a writer, aren't you? So, imagine it as you once did. No, no—don’t close your eyes I said. Simply look into mine. If it’s not blood, it has to be thoughts. Feed it your own vision, Thomas, just as you did when you arrived. You must fight it.”
Thomas concentrates. The strain splits with the pain from his wound. The entryway is crowded with the dead and his head is a hollow, heavy mass daring to droop over into unconsciousness at any moment. The hotel staff is watching him and the walls are crawling with four legged creatures that appear similar to the dimensions of the ‘cat' that Thomas saw on his first night. Their eyes are filled with an indomitable hunger. But as he recollects the warmth of his first greeting with Valentine, their continued conversation, the muted colors of the past are painted over by the charm of what was first presented.
“Good, good! Yes!" Valentine says. Each vein and blood vessel of Valentine’s skin beings layering over itself. Her cadaverous, flaking lips fill up with blood and are stitched up with soft flesh. “I can see it in your eyes. It's coming back, isn't it?"
“I think so.” His shirt is soaked through from the wound on his head. “I ... I need to get my journal," he remembers.
“There isn’t time for that …”
“No! I need it!” Thomas shouts in delirium.
“Okay, okay,” Valentine says. “We can work with that. Shh, shh," she hushes. “We can get that for you, just don’t look away. Think about that night in the sepulcher."
“I feel so weak."
Valentine takes his hand and leads him up the stairs. Like floating candles behind a veil, Thomas sees flickers of the ghosts crowding the Inn. The ticking of the grandfather clock chimes in and out of working order; the brightness in the room, the mirage of its healthy conditions, sputters like a dying lightbulb.
Thomas bumps into a pair of grey, swaying feet. Sunken cheeks, empty sockets, and a dried tongue stare down at him from a swaying noose. The modern clothing that the corpse is wearing matches one of the coats hanging up in the entryway. One of the few details that hasn’t disappeared from his arrival. The body is drained.
“Don't stop, Thomas," Valentine says. “Don’t look at her. That won’t be you!”
Then there are nails digging into his neck. Thomas shouts as the blood runs and Isabelle gouges him deeper. Valentine turns around. The illusion of the Inn snaps back to its true reality. Valentine unleashes a scream at the maid. It is an inhuman, piercing cry that sends several other phantoms around Thomas scattering. But the writer is on his knees, barely holding himself up by his cane.
“Here, Thomas," Valentine reaches out to him. “I’m sorry you had to hear that. Take my hand and don't let go this time. I can't keep this up for much longer. Remember when you called me Mrs. Gormek? You were right! That’s so strange, isn’t it?" she chuckles uneasily, rubbing his chest. “You were always right.”
“W-why?" Thomas manages, getting to his feet. A growl rumbles from his stomach.
“The Inn runs on its customers just as it did many years ago," Valentine says, pushing open the door into Thomas' room. “Only, not the way it used to. Ghosts need food, too. Did you know that? I wish they didn’t."
As they enter, Thomas conjures some life back into the hotel. Dimly, he becomes aware that, if nothing else was real, then the food wasn't either. He slouches against the doorway, eyes closed. His ears hum with the low growls of the damned.
“Oh god. I've let you stay here for far too long, haven't I?"
“No, no ... you are too kind. Cappuccino?" Thomas says sleepily, sliding to the floor.
“No!" The hostess crouches in front of him and shakes his head back and forth. “Don't fall asleep. Not here. Anywhere but here. Please. Take this." Valentine shoves his journal into his hand and stuffs his phone into his coat pocket “It’s your journal! We got it! Are you strong enough to take your luggage?"
Thomas swings the noodle that is his neck back and forth.
“That’s all right. I’ll keep it here for you. I promise. Hey, hey now," the hostess continues, “this isn't the place to sleep is it? It’s too wet. You have to write that book about this place, remember? That's why you didn't leave when you had the chance back there, isn't it? You needed this."
At the word ‘book' Thomas eyes flutter open and his fingers twitch around the spine of his journal. He sees Valentine's expression knotted in concern, causing a wan smile to come to his lips. She plants a kiss with his cheeks smushed between her hands. Hungry eyes are watching them from the hallway, but all he can focus on is her. Her current form is neither dead nor alive, but a mixture of the two as he raises a hand to brush some of her hair back.
“Aren't you hungry?" he asks.
A flicker of a horrifying appetite passes over her eyes. It's swept away with another shake of her head. “Not for you. Not that way. Up we go, now. My friends aren't so discerning with their diets." Valentine finds Thomas' fountain pen at the edge of the desk and pushes it into his hand. It slips out, clatters onto the floor and falls through the cracks into the cellars below.
“Oh ... keepsake for you. Or something for me to use in the afterlife?" The delirious Thomas chuckles and laughs. Next, the hostess shoves his cane back into his lap hard enough that the pain causes him to flinch. Thomas fumbles to grip it with his journal in the other hand.
“This isn't the time for jokes my love. Oh," Valentine groans as she hoists him up, “you have to give me something here. I can't do this on my own.
“What about you?" Thomas murmurs as they begin limping back down the hallway.
“Don't worry about me. You just focus on walking now, sweetness. All right?"
“There's so much blood," he drawls.
“Good. Something to distract them."
A host of phantoms is trailing behind them. Their tongues lap up the puddles that developed both in Thomas' room and the entrway. Their bodies bob and flex, droplets of the substance disappearing beneath their tongues. As the puddles shrink, their forms vivify.
“Nobody will believe this," Thomas says as they make their way to the bottom of the stairs. From the banisters behind them, the mute maid Isabelle is watching, momentarily content.
“Good. You are a fiction writer," Valentine replies. “Here we are. Oh, thank god. You feel the rain against you? It's good, isn't it? Head wounds always bleed an awful lot more than they need. The gash isn't too deep. You'll be all right, won't you? Yes, just like that. We’re nearly across the courtyard now. Good, good."
Thomas mumbles the ghost’s name, his weight beginning to droop again. Valentine digs deep into the recesses of her strength to counteract his falling. “Cane! Use the damn cane, Thomas. We're nearly there. You see your car? You're so close. Call your sister once you're safe inside, okay?"
“Wait ... wait ..."
“No, there's no time for waiting! I’ve taken too much of yours already," Valentine sobs. “We need to get you away from here.” The hostess tucks Thomas' journal into a pocket inside his coat so as to keep the rain from continuing to pelt it. “I was a good host, wasn't I? I never, not once let myself ... not to you,” she continues to sob. The rain has slicked down Valentine's hair, the moonlight making her grey eyes appear to glow. In the haze of the storm and his blood loss, he sees more of the woman and less of the ghost.
“You're hungry like them, aren't you?" The clarity in his mind is brief, but it's there. His knuckles pale around his cane in an attempt to prolong it. Behind Valentine, almost a third of the Erato Inn is caved in, and the structure is a growling mass of darkness. “What will happen if you don't eat?" Thomas shouts through the storm. “You'll die, won't you? Like the rest of that hideous place!"
“No ... no ... don't tempt me!" Valentine cradles her head and starts backing away. “You’re seeing things clearly now. That’s good!” She pauses. A broken smile appears on her lips while her chin twitches. “So turn around and leave while it all makes sense, Thomas! Tell me you'll write about this place. You will, won't you? About me? You tell the story as it happened and not a word less!"
Fragments of Valentine begin slipping right in front of him. The winds are gusting so hard that they are taking parts of her away, dragging her back towards the Inn, scrap by scrap.
“Just leave with me! Why not? I can feel you. I felt you back there, didn’t I? That wasn’t a dream, was it? I’m awake right now, damnit!”
“It wasn’t! Just promise me!” the ghost weeps harder. Valentine cracks, falling to her knees. “I can’t go with you.” But her hands is outstretched towards his.
“I will,” Thomas says. “I promise.”
“Say it again. And remember, no matter what you think after all this, I never meant ... " A gale sweeps up Valentine and swirls her back into the oblivion that is the maws of the Erato Inn. Thomas stumbles forward, fingertips just close to touch hers before she dissipates entirely.
The storm swallows up the rest of her words. Still he hears her voice louder than any other memory.
I take a step back from that advance. What I believe was my first true step away from the place. With a mind not attached nor manipulated by its impossible machinations. The blood from my head is still pouring, as is the wound on my neck and hand, but it hardly matters. My car is just a few yards away and I have retained a full cognizance. So real that I am already beginning to question what’s happened. I imagine that the look on my face is the one that Valentine had as she leaned over me in the bed.
Like comparing two photographs.
There is no final glance that will imprint the image as clearly as I want it, even if a part of me desires to forget entirely. I stand there, dazed and wavering, waiting for the lights of the Inn to turn back on, for the walls to reassemble themselves as I once saw them.
But none of that happens.
The wind continues to howl louder. Its hail lashes me harder, pushing me away. But I want to take in every detail.
In one of the windows on the second floor, what I estimate was the bedroom I stayed in, there is the silhouette of a woman. Both an ache and a shudder roll through what’s left of my blood as I meet her eyes.
“I will," I say.
And I have.