The little brass bell dances up and down at the opening of the door. I sigh to myself as the young couple—they’d been drinking—make their staggering way to the front desk, my desk. They hold onto each other and wiggle their noses together.
Without looking at me she says, “Coffin for two, please.” Jumping, she lets out a high giggling, playfully slapping the man’s shoulder. There is a sign on my desk. It clearly directs costumers to write their names in the ledger. We even have a pen for the costumer’s convenience. In thirty years no one ever just followed the sign, took their key, and departed, so to speak.
I move the ledger closer to them, and point at one of our rooms. She takes the pen, and as he kisses her neck she twists, shivering and smiling at his tickling lips. Scrawling her name she passes the pen to the man. He’s moved on to her ear now, doesn’t even look at the paper he’s scribbling over. He whispers something to her.
“Do you have room—ah, quit it!” she shouts laughing. “Do you have room service?”
I reach under the desk and hand her a menu. They look it over.
“The Italian,” she says.
“I was thinking Chinese,” he says. There is, of course, no Chinese on the menu. He seems to realize this, looking at each entry carefully. “Uh,” he stammers, “you decide my little blood pudding.”
She does that sort of smile a woman does, the one where they curl their lips inward and stick out just a bit of their tongue. His arm is around her waist now, and he begins pulling her a little side to side.
“I’d like the Italian,” she says, beaming.
A musical chiming plays behind me. Looking over to the clock, I point to the sign under it. There are ten minutes before daybreak. Her expression changes, dropping a moment. She whispers into his ear. Snatching the key from my hand the pair begin a sort of playful race to the staircase, tugging at each other as they go along. Out of my sight I hear her shrieking with delight, followed by the fluttering of leathery wings.
I ring up the butcher, give him the order, “an Italian for two,” he talks, “Room six,” I hang up. When I was alive this sort of thing would have fascinated me, I loved the macabre. That’s probably how I got here, though I don’t really remember.
My joints begin to make an audible creaking as the rising sun dispels the dark magic holding me to this world. Sitting back, cobwebs begin to form over me as my dried flesh melts to dust. The new hire, one of those zombies that seem to be everywhere nowadays, moans his way toward the front door. He’s a little slow, but manages to set the lock properly.
I don’t think zombies are stupid at all, just slow and clumsy, yes, and inarticulate. But in our line of work, you don’t really need to talk. Theodor, puts headphones on top of his head. He complained to me about not being able to handle earbuds, couldn’t quite manage getting them in, but he seems happy with these.
I can hear his brainless music, a repetitive baseline married to indiscernible lyrics, from here. A ghost possesses a feather duster and begins sweeping away my cobwebs. I hear the shuffling of mail being sorted into their respective boxes. A letter is thrown onto my desk. It reads, “To my Billy Bones.”
I would have shuddered, had I been able. Even now her perfume wafted toward me from the pink envelope. A skull was imprinted on the seal. I dreaded what would happen next. My standing order was to have my mail read to me when I was in this state. If it had come in the midnight post I could have just thrown it away.
The monkey-like gremlin crawls onto the top of my desk and breaks the seal. Its croaking voice does little justice to Emily’s always playful tone:
To my Dearest Billy Bones,
I had just made ink out of the blood of a particularly annoying monster hunter, there seems to be more of them every year, and I couldn’t think of a better use for it than to send you a reminder of my love. I can hear your joints rattling at that, but I’m sure your little hotel staff will never read this, they’d know better, so I can pour my blackened heart out to you. I often think back to that black midnight sky under the new moon, when I stole away to the old cemetery clutching my spell book next to my heart. I walked around the tombstones, reading the many clichéd epitaphs. Beloved wife, in honor of, taken too soon, but then I read yours. What was it now? Something like: William T. Baker, None of us really knew you. There was always that comical aspect of your existence, even dead you could make me laugh. I sacrificed a rat right then and there, I probably should have used a chicken, would have given you some skin, but I was afraid it would make too much noise. Anyway, there you came popping up out of the ground, screaming like you’d been through Hell. Oh, we had a mad summer, so many fun memories. It was devil’s work keeping you hidden, you smelled so bad at first, but we made it, turned the whole place into a real ghost town. I go there sometimes, it’s not the same. Anyway, my love, I heard you were running a hotel for those stuck up blood suckers, they couldn’t resurrect a better manager than you.
I’ll always be in the darkness for you, Billy Bones,
I have some vacation time ahead of me, so I’ll be stopping by the hotel. Please make me a reservation, nothing too fancy. I’ll expect nothing but your very best.
While Percival read the letter Theodor shambled over, the headphones hanging around his neck. The feather duster slowed at every word until it lay lifeless by the Gremlin. They were silent, that was the standing order for the day shift, you never want to disturb the customer’s eternal rest. But, Theodor started inhaling, something that always predicated his garbled speech. His stumbling words fell over each other like clowns tumbling under a circus tent.
“He…” short moan, “…want…” a sort of wheeze, “best room,” he finished by pointing at me. I indeed did not want “best room,” as he put it. I would have preferred to hear him mumbling something more along the lines of, “Bar doors,” or “Close down,” but silence would have sufficed.
The feather duster stood up and started tapping the letter. Percival looked down at the spot the ghost was indicating and croaked, “…very best.” Pulling at his beard he began pacing in front of the pink paper, his eyes skimming every line. Finally, he stopped and turned toward Theodor.
“Theodor,” he said. Theodor took a minute to lower his glazed expression on the froglike creature. “Take the service demote-evator and prepare the basement. When this Emily gets here she’ll think she died and went to Hell.” Nodding, well throwing his head backward once, the zombie limped down the hall, dragging a broom behind him.
“Don’t you worry, Sir,” Percival said, “We’ll make it so she’ll never want to leave.” Hopping off the counter he flew down the dark hallway. The feather duster remained where it was, but I felt a slight breeze pass over me as the pink paper folded itself and jumped into my breast pocket.
Alone, I looked out the window at the rising sun. Theodor was supposed to have shut the shudders. “The sunlight, Theodor,” I could hear myself saying once night fell, “Not all of us are half rotting corpses animated by a terrible plague. Some of us can still feel pain.” He would groan, but I rarely had to tell him something twice.
The letter’s scent arose from my pocket, the same rotting rosebud smell she had worn the night I was “re-born.” As she said, I was screaming coming up out of the ground, what she failed to remember was that she was screaming with me, a sort of cackling mad screaming that made my hollow chest want to burst.
I was her first minion, the first minion she ever summoned. Well, let’s say the first real minion she ever summoned. Scruffy doesn’t count, he’s just an amalgam of roadkill, more possum than cat. Oh dear, I hope she’s not bringing Scruffy too. He was always chewing on me when I was like this. I still have his tooth marks to show for it. We’ll need a litter box.
Barely thirteen and already she knew exactly what she wanted from life, to subjugate it under her iron will. She hid me in the cellar during the day, in the cellar with Scruffy, but would send me out at night to fulfill her dark commands. We went to work the very first evening.
She hadn’t been invited to a party, specifically, the girls said that they’d sooner invite the cemetery to come over rather than her. So I came.