“Is this the place?” The driver questioned in an aloof manner. It’s the most I’d heard out of him in nearly four hours of sharing a car ride.
“134 Maple, this should be it.” I answered.
The driver, whose name I had yet to learn, merely grunted and popped open the trunk. I stepped out of his vintage olive Infinity, removed my backpack with one hand, my briefcase with the other, and slammed the trunk shut.
“Thanks uh… Sorry, what was your name again?” I inquired casually through the passenger seat window. The car engine started up and drove off before I could hear the answer, not that there was one.
“Right…” I mumbled to myself. I turned and faced my destination. 134 Maple. An old, rundown motel overlooking a cold, dead river.
The rotting once-white planks surrounding the outside seemed tailor-made for the stark look of the place. The few storefronts across the street all seemed to be closed; the beach by the river looked about as welcoming as a prison yard, with a torturous symphony of black birds shrieking above the water. All of it was topped off by a thick murk that made it hard to see a few yards past the shore. A single beacon of light cut across the smog; I concluded it must be a lighthouse marking a nearby harbor.
I made my way to the front of the motel. Above the walnut door hung a quaint sign that read The Seaside Hotel.
“Not a sea, hardly a hotel” I mumbled to myself as I cracked open the entrance. The lobby was as cold and empty as the neighborhood surrounding it. Visibility was scarce, with the only light emanating from an aging chandelier hanging above the front desk. Two of the five light bulbs were missing.
“Hello? Anybody home?” I tried to ring the bell on the front desk but it soon became evident that it had rang for the last time long before my arrival.
After what seemed like ages, a young lady stepped out from the room across the front desk. Despite clearly being in her twenties, something about her eyes looked old and distant. She stepped behind the counter with a weary demeanor and stared directly into my eyes.
“What are you doing here?” She asked in a biting manner.
“This is a hotel right? I need a room.” I replied.
“It’s after five on the winter solstice.” She stated.
“Uhm… okay? Do you… not have a room available?” I offered back, confused.
She stared at me blankly for a never-ending minute. Then, she reached under the counter and pulled out a wooden rectangle with the number thirteen scratched on it. Attached to it, a single key. She slid the plank across the counter.
“Number 13. Up the stairs.” She said, a solemn yet vacant expression on her face.
“Thanks…” I muttered back. I grabbed the key, picked up my suitcase and began heading up the stairs. From the corner of my eye, I could see her blank stare follow me.
“You shouldn’t be here.” I heard her say.
“I’m sorry?” I shot back.
“You shouldn’t be here. Not today.” She repeated.
“Why’s that?” I said. No answer. Her eyes seemed troubled. “Right. Well, I'll be gone in the morning, just got a few questions for the sheriff.”
“You won’t find him.” She answered.
“Well then, I’ll speak to whomever is willing to speak to me.” I turned and continued up the stairs.
“No one is up.” I heard her say. “You should go to bed, try them in the morning.” I began to get frustrated at her cryptic nature.
“I don’t have time for that. See, I have to get back to my editor tomorrow at noon with a local comment on the mysterious disappearances around here, ideally from a member of the law. However, if you’re so certain all is doomed on that front, would you care to comment?” Her expression grew grim. She seemed to contemplate an answer for a moment; Alas, nothing came. Instead, she just said:
“Good night.” And retreated back into her room.
“Strange… so strange” I muttered to myself and continued up the stairs.
The room was nothing special. The overwhelming darkness was augmented by the fully shut curtains. I swung them open and a bit of twilight luster creeped through the dirty windows. Not much help.
I threw my backpack and briefcase on the bed, popped open the briefcase and drew out my notepad. All I needed. I exited the room, locked the door behind me, and began down the stairs. The lobby was once again empty, no sign of the strange girl. I left the hotel.
The water was even less visible with the growing darkness of the dusk sky. I took a few steps out onto the sand as I noticed a blackbird staring directly at me. Something about the animal drew me closer. After a couple more steps I heard a crack underneath my left shoe.
“A snail?” I thought to myself. I looked down but could hardly make out what I had stepped on. I reached into my jacket pocket and drew out my lighter. After a couple flicks, a weak flame sparked up. I squatted down and aimed the flame towards the ground. It was a light blue seashell. The weight of my body had cracked it into six different pieces. Oddly enough, it seemed to have something written on it.
“Remember? December?” I tried to make out what was written on the exoskeleton to no avail. A brisk wind made me aware of just how uncomfortably chilly this small town was. I reached back into my jacket pocket and drew out a box of cigarettes. I lit one, hoping it might warm me up some.
After hiking up about a half-mile in the opposite direction, I finally arrived at a small police station lodged between a pub and a haberdashery. All three locations appeared closed and empty, just like every storefront I’d passed on my walk.
“It’s not even dark yet, people around here must be a different kind of lazy” I thought to myself.
Looks like the strange girl at the hotel was right, I wouldn’t be getting any comments around here. I began to head back when I saw a singular light in a shop across the street. I made my way to it and opened the glass door.
Inside, it smelled old and dusty, it was some kind of antique shop. I couldn’t see much through the ceiling-high piles of junk that cluttered the tiny shop. Then, a soft voice broke through the space.
“I wasn’t expecting you here tonight.” It said.
“Were you expecting anyone?” I shot back in no particular direction. No answer. “Whole town seems to have been abducted by aliens.”
“They know better than to be out and about on the winter’s solstice.” It answered.
Using the sound to guide me, I finally found the source of the voice. An older lady sat behind a cluttered counter, her eyes locked on a book that looked at least three hundred years old.
“What’s this obsession y’all got with it being the winter’s solstice?” I asked. She smiled without looking up at me. It wasn’t a condescending smile, rather it was full of warmth and kindness.
“Do you know what the winter’s solstice is, young man?” She asked back.
“Sure. It’s the day in the year in which we’re furthest from the sun.” I answered without hesitation.
“How scientific.” She said, holding back a chuckle.
“Well, how would you describe it?” I continued.
“It’s the shortest day… and the longest night.” She spoke in a soft yet haunting manner.
“Right, due to the fact that it’s the day we’re furthest from the sun, no?” I rationalized. She chuckled yet again, and her eyes dropped back to her book.
“What are you reading?” I inquired curiously.
“Would you believe me if I told you this book was written by a real-life mermaid a long time ago?” She posed the question as casually as though she were asking if I wanted some tea. I contemplated for a second.
“Oh yeah? Where’s the water damage?” I replied mockingly. She laughed a little.
“The world used to be a very different place. Every now and again, flashes of those uncertain times make their way back to us.” She said, as she continued reading.
We sat in silence for a minute, then, realizing this was my only apparent chance to get the answers I came looking for, I asked:
“Do you know anything about the disappearances around here?” I tossed the question out with no preamble. She ignored me and kept reading. I continued:
“Every year, around this time of year, people here go missing without a trace; And for some reason, nobody speaks about it. Hell, I wouldn’t have even found out if I hadn’t bumped into the cases while researching a whole ‘nother matter. My editor told me it was a waste of time, but something about it intrigues me. There has to be something. Something making people avert their eyes. Do you know anything about it?”
She finally looked up from her book.
“You’re very brave, coming here at this time of year knowing about this.” She said nonchalantly.
“Maybe. Or maybe I’m just plain stupid.” I replied.
“You don’t seem stupid. Not to me at least.” She said, I didn’t sense an ounce of dishonesty in her tone.
“Well then, let’s call it stubborn.” I proposed with a slight grin on my face. She smiled.
“You should go to bed, it’s going to get dark soon” She said as she turned her attention back to her book.
“I’m a night owl.” I replied.
“Not tonight you’re not.” She shot back without looking up.
“What’s with everyone telling me to go to bed around here? I’ve already got a mother you know?” I said jokingly. “Or is there some kind of law-imposed curfew that I don’t know about?”
“No curfew, you’re welcome to stay up if you want.” She replied. “I just wouldn’t recommend it.”
“I’ll take my chances. Hell, I might even see one of them mermaids.” I said sarcastically. This time, no laughter rose within her.
“I take it that’s a no comment on the disappearances?” I added.
“Right. Well, enjoy your mermaid book.” I started to head out.
“One last thing;” she said “Do not go gentle into that good night.”
I did not know what to respond, so with that, I left.
It was getting darker, so I checked the time. 6:43 p.m. I walked back down the path I had come up before. Now in less of a rush, I took my time to look at the empty storefronts. Apart from the whole Silent Hill ghost town aesthetic, it seemed like a pretty average small town. Small shops, small streets, and so far, small-minded people. At least it remained consistent.
When I arrived back at the hotel, I tossed my empty notepad on the nightstand and threw my tired body on the bed. The clock on the wall read 6:45 p.m.
“It’s broken.” I thought to myself. “It took me at least fifteen minutes to walk back here.”
I checked the watch on my hand; 6:45 p.m.
“That’s strange…” I muttered softly.
“Maybe I walked faster than I realized?” I thought “No, that’s impossible. Half a mile in two minutes, even at the peak of my youth that’s a stretch.”
I rose from the bed.
“Maybe a magnetic field messing with the clocks.” I pondered in silence. “But my watch has been working fine all day.”
I paced in silence, the mystery thumping in my head. After finding no satisfying answer, I fell back in bed.
“I’m probably just tired.” I sighed.
I wiggled out of my clothes, crept under the sheets, and closed my eyes.
After about an hour of forcing my eyes shut trying to force sleep, I deemed it hopeless. I opened my eyes and they instinctively shot back at the clock on the wall.
Sure enough, it was the same on my watch.
“I’ll just get some writing done, keep my head busy” I thought to myself.
I removed my laptop from my briefcase and opened up a blank document. However, as I attempted to begin typing, I felt inexplicably frozen. Mentally, and physically.
“Write.” I thought to myself “Write!”
I’ve never suffered from writer’s block, it’s part of what makes me a good journalist. I could put out ten pages on the subject of cheese in under an hour. I’d write four to five articles on a slow day. But now, try as I may, not a single sentence would build cohesively in my mind.
“I need a drink.” I muttered in soft confusion.
I left my room and stepped quietly down the stairs.
“Hello?” I said loudly. “I need some service!”
I crept up to the door of the room from which the strange girl had emerged before and knocked three times.
I knocked louder.
“Hello? Sorry to bother you! I was just wondering if I could get a drink or something.”
Not a sound.
“HELLO?!” I tried the doorknob. Locked.
“Alright, I’ll just have a look around then. Hope that’s alright.” I said.
“So strange” I murmured to myself softly.
I made my way behind the counter and through the rest of the lobby. Every single door was locked. I tried the supply closet under the stairs, it creaked open. Inside, a pair of glowing eyes abruptly met me.
“WHAT THE FUCK?!” I screamed in fear.
I managed to feel my way to the pull cord and turned on the light. Surprisingly, it worked. The eyes turned out to be attached to a sculpture of a singing mermaid about three feet tall.
“What’s with this place and damn mermaids?” I muttered to myself.
I had a look around the supply closet. It seemed pretty average. Mops, buckets, nothing to help my case. Then, lodged in between the mermaid sculpture and a shelf I caught a glimpse of a clear glass bottle half-empty with a transparent liquid. I opened it up and took a whiff. It smelled like Vodka.
“Jackpot.” I said to myself as I aimed to take a big glug. As soon as the liquid touched my taste buds, my body rejected it in an act of instinctive self-preservation.
“Fuck me, that’s rancid” I managed to squeeze out. I checked my watch.
“Oh screw it.” I said as I took another gulp, this time swallowing it whole in disgust. “Okay… not that bad.”
I stumbled out of the supply closet; bottle in hand and a head full of questions. I figured a bit of fresh air would do me some good.
Outside, the stark darkness was overwhelming, only the distant lighthouse and the hotel lobby lights illuminated the area for miles. I took a stroll down to the beach and sat on the cold, hard sand to ease my mind. After a moment, a large blackbird landed directly in front of me. Despite not being able to see it clearly, I could tell it was staring directly into my eyes.
Could it be the same bird from before? No, impossible. Just a coincidence for sure. I stuck my hand out towards the bird to scare it away and I felt a sting shoot up my right forearm, making me drop the bottle.
“Ow shit!” I exclaimed. Piece of shit bird bit me. I could feel a trail of blood running down my index finger. I raised my finger to my mouth and began sucking on the metallic sap.
A deafening yowl pierced through my eardrums, and my head instinctively shot in the direction of the lighthouse. Right then, the bird flapped onto the night sky and began flying towards the distant light. Despite my vision being limited in the dark, I could hear the flapping of a few other birds flying in the same direction. Ten, maybe twenty.
Before I could process the bizarre occurrence, my feet began making their way in the same direction. The town was desolate in the icy blackness and something told me this place might have the answers I seeked. My legs began to move faster in an inexplicable earnest. All around me the flapping of invisible wings became thunderous, there must’ve been hundreds of them speedily flying alongside me. At times, I could feel their wings narrowly miss my side or graze my swaying elbows.
When I finally neared the light, I began looking for an entrance to the seemingly towering structure; I couldn’t find a single brick.
Frantically, I sprinted from one side of the light to the other, the fluttering wings still buzzing in my ears. Eventually, I found myself standing right underneath the floating orb of light. It was attached to nothing. Nothing at all.
The twitching of the wings began to meld together into a murmuring melody. At the center of the light, something called out to me. An indistinguishable face with what looked like a million strands of drawn-out hair sang a beautiful harmony to the melody of the wings. It was warbling directly to me. Despite the words being incomprehensible, I understood everything.
An overwhelming flurry of knowledge rushed into my powerless mind. The answers of not only the disappearances, but existence itself blasted through my thoughts like a billion frantic fireflies trying to fit freely inside of a candy jar. Images, ideas, rationalizations all raced beneath my eyes so quickly I couldn’t grasp a single one for longer than a thousandth of a second.
“Remember!” I could feel my mind urge. “You need to remember!”
My brain felt as though it would melt. The strain of trying to keep hold of reason was causing my head to near a million degrees. I fell to my knees, paralyzed and defenseless to the weight of all the knowledge. Besides me, I noticed a cerulean seashell resting peacefully on the sand. Using the trickling blood from the tip of my finger, I began inscribing on it shakily.
Abruptly, the hands on my watch began speeding forward maniacally.
A reticent streak of light began glowing bashfully in the horizon.
My pulse grew shaky as I felt my inner organs begin to deteriorate at an alarmingly rapid pace. I could hardly continue to press my feeble hand against the shell’s surface.
The shell dropped from my fatigued hand. Only then I noticed wrinkles, spots and veins protruding from my once youthful skin. Heavily, I dragged myself to the shore. On the surface of the water, an elderly gaze regarded me. The young man that arrived at 134 Maple just yesterday felt like no more than a distant fever dream. I plummeted down on the water and let the crashing waves wash my aged body. The glare of daybreak surging through my frail skin.
“Oh.” I muttered softly. “It’s all clear now.”