Ghost Story 1988

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Room 232 belongs to Marcia, who's lonely. She strokes your hair while you sleep and calls you Lydia, and it tears her heart out anew when you leave in the morning, because it's like she's losing her daughter all over again.

Room 111 belongs to Andrew, who's guilty. When you're not looking, blood runs thick and dark down the walls and pools uneasily on the ceiling. When it drips down warm onto your head or your neck or your arm, you look but there's nothing there but fading paint.

Room 208 belongs to Anil, who's far from home. Your dreams move you through shanty towns, along undefined roads clogged with cars and carts and cattle, into the heat and the smell and the tangle of millions of human lives. Always behind you trails an unseeable figure, weeping for India.

Room 217 belongs to Celia, who's ill. The room is her failing body, and when it's quiet, you hear her labored breathing wheezing through the vents, her thin blood swirling through the carpet, her stuttering heartbeat gently pulsing in the wood of the door.

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Room 103 is the maintenance room. Here live Mr. Gold and Anita the maid and James who works behind the counter. When their day is done they closed their eyes and the paneling becomes hands and arms and chests to cradle them close. The wood draws them back and whispers to them of what to say and who to keep and what days to offer special rates. And when their souls have left the shells for another night, the wood whispers forever and warms itself with Marcia and Andrew and Anil and Celia and Mr. Gold and Anita and James who works behind the counter.

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Room 125 will belong to John, who's mad. When you close your eyes the afterimage of yellow eyes will be there on your eyelids, but you will never be able to focus on it, and the acrid smell of bad smoke will stay heavy on your tongue. When you awake, you will find that whatever you carried that was most dear to you has vanished, and it will never never come back.

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The lobby belongs to everyone.

Mr. Gold smiles enthusiastically and says, "Welcome to the Oldwood Inn!"

James waves and says, "I can check you in here."

John rubs a hand over a haggard face and says, "Thanks. Just a night. Two fulls, if you've got them."

Celia feels the footfalls like bruises on her delicate skin.

Andrew reaches out for a little boy's hair as he passes by, misses, and the air shivers as he whispers, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry."

Anil stands unseen in front of the fire but near him it smells like spices and sewage and warm bodies.

Dean lets go of the hand he's holding and says, "I don't like it here."

Sammy shakes his head and says, "My name isn't Lydia."

John turns around and says, "What?"

Sammy is wide-eyed and says, "She wants Lydia."

Anita closes her fingers around John's wrist and with a smile says, "Your room is this way."

Dean snags Sam's hand again and says, "Come on."

Sammy looks at the empty couch, shakes his head vehemently and says, "My name isn't Lydia."

Marcia lays her head down on the armrest as they walk away and weeps.

--

"Where are the other people?"

"I don't know, Dean. Maybe asleep already."

"Who was Sammy talking to?"

"That's a good point. Who were you talking to, kiddo?"

"The woman who was crying."

"The maid? She wasn't crying."

"No, the woman on the couch."

"Sammy, there was no one on the couch."

"There was a woman, and she was crying. And the man who was apologizing, and the one in front of the fire who wanted to go home, and the lady who lives in the carpets."

"Dad, all I saw was the old guy, the guy at the desk, and the maid lady."

"They were all there!"

"Sammy! There was no one else there!"

John is silent.

--

The wood has been screaming for thirty minutes before the flames lick at the bones of Marcia in 232, bones squirreled away in knotholes and between boards and sometimes just drawn completely into the grain. And as she burns, she sighs Lydia and moves on.

In 111 Andrew cries his apologies, and the flames dries his tears.

217 shudders as death comes at last for Celia, and her last breaths are flame and ash as the bones of her ribcage blacken with the door.

Anil breaths in the heat pulsing through 208 and with his last moments thinks of his childhood.

The arms and hands and chests of 103 drop the husks of Mr. Gold and Anita and James, and as the flames bite into the corpses, the souls feel themselves drawn from the wood and set free.

And the lobby shakes and cries out, the wood curling and popping and glowing, and Oldwood Inn is no more.

--

Outside, Sammy hides his face in Dean's shirt, and John leans against the car and scrawls a note into a journal with trembling fingers.

--

In 1956, Andrew Mann snapped up part of a huge undeveloped piece of land; when he looked at it, he could see his dream. He used the timber he cleared from the standing forest to make his Oldwood Inn, and no expense was spared. The result was gorgeous: a beautiful hotel in a beautiful wooded setting. In 1940, Mann stayed in his inn on its opening night and was never seen again. What he—and every other owner thus after—learned, however, is this: dryads do not take kindly to having their trees destroyed.

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Vines wrap around the few remaining timbers of the Oldwood Inn, and in the middle of the ashes that used to be wallpaper and carpet and human bones, a sapling is growing unnaturally fast. The Old Wood has claimed hers again, and the only voices haunting the ruins are green like sunlight though leaves.