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.
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 forming over me as my dried flesh disintegrates, melting into 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 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, one should never disturb the customer’s eternal rest. But Theodor started inhaling, something that always predicated his garbled speech. The 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 rose 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 too, 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 they’d sooner invite a corpse. As I stood there in my tuxedo, maggots leaping off me like lemmings, she put her hand in mine and walked me to the street. Talking the whole way in a nonstop staccato, she told me all the things we were going to do. But before I knew it, she was gone, and I was standing in front of the door to 78692 Balloview Dr.
The great red door swung open, unleashing a flood of blinding light. A tall silhouette grumbled, “A bit early for Halloween.” The blurry form collected itself. Two arms crossed over the chest, the same number of legs standing shoulder width apart. A head materialized, though the hair never did, and with it a face. The eyes bore down on me over a slim nose, as if making up their minds whether or not they should teach me a lesson or just slam the door closed. Under them, the frown seemed to be casting its vote towards some violent end.
It was about then a blurry ball of fur, Scruffy, scurried past the both of us. Emily’s stitching was coming undone, and the possum tail fell off as it thrashed against the man’s shoes. This leftover slithered around between our feet like a snake while, in the distance, the high pitched screams of teenaged girls filled the night.
“The Hell,” the man yelled, and slammed the door in my face.
Alone in the darkness, I meandered into their lawn, exploring the contents of my pockets. They were empty. Set into the side of the house was a large window frame through which the warm lights of a home glowed like an ember in this cold October night. Gazing in, I watched the pajama clad girls running from one end of the living room to the other, while the imposing man seemed to be swinging a shoe like it were a hammer, periodically bringing it crashing to the floor. This dance continued well past midnight, their shouts filling the air like music.
A creaking, followed by a bright flash broke my revelries. Turning, I saw the door reopened, and pouring forth, the little ladies of the house ran into the dark lawn. Huddling in one mass, they shivered at the cold.
“What’s that smell?” I heard a voice ask. Taking a big sniff, I tried to catch a whiff of whatever was troubling them.
“Ew, what is that?” another added.
“That’s disgusting,” said a third.
“Did something die?” a voice squealed.
“I did,” I clarified. They stopped talking. Pulling in closer together, they all turned their young faces towards me. “I was told there was an open invitation for a corpse.” Stepping into the light cast by the window, I sauntered into view. Before they had time to scream, the crashing sound of shattering glass interrupted our conversation. Scruffy, with jagged edges of the broken window sticking out of him, made a mad dash through the grass, darting into the quiet street.
“If you’ll excuse me,” I said, and started walking straight toward them. Screaming, they scattered like roaches. Coming to the front porch, I found the possum tail, still slithering, and picking it up, turned to go.
A voice called out behind me, “You!”
It was the man. Clutching a worn boot in one hand, he shook the footwear at me. I waved back at him, trying to smile. As anyone can attest who has seen my face, smiles do not become it. Well, Emily said she liked my smile, but she’s a liar. Something about the thinness of my skin, the absence of gums around my teeth, and the black hollows where my eyes should be, has a rather peculiar effect, one often criticized, when together they attempt the pattern of a smile. I did not know this, though, as I had not yet had the chance to see my face up to that point.
But I saw what it did to him. Dropping the boot, he clutched at his chest. With painful gasps, he fell onto the floor. A look of pain contorted his features as his dome, earlier crimson with the evening’s exercises, turned a vapid shade. I stood in the doorway, the possum tail wiggling between my fingers. I watched him grow silent, watched him expire.
Emily’s hand was in mine again, her soft flesh embracing the leathered skin around my bones. Leaning into me, she pressed the side of her head into my shoulder, sighing delightedly. We stayed like that awhile, gazing at the dead man, the other dead man.
“Oh dear,” she giggled, glancing at her watch. “You’ve got to go.”
“Where?” I asked.
Biting her lip, she let go of my hand and started pacing a patch of the lawn. Periodically, she would consult her watch. Halting, she turned, and racing toward me, took my hand. We ran off together, disappearing into the early morning.
Sitting in the lobby, considering that ill-fated man, I wondered if the undead could suffer a haunting. It has seemed at times as though the bald man were haunting me. If he was, I would have to charge him to stay here. Even if he was just a ghost, rules were rules, and if you weren’t on staff, you had to pay to spend the day.
Making a mental note to get an appointment with the witchdoctor regarding this issue, I let my mind wander on, and where else would it go but that fateful evening. The setting sun, once its light finally extinguished in that great western pool, released me from my daily imprisonment into my nightly servitude. My arm was missing. I had watched helplessly as Scruffy tore it from my shoulder. Rising from the ground, I began searching for my stolen limb.
Thankfully, the animal wasn’t that smart, and had, after chewing on it for most of the day, left my arm half buried in our backyard. I saw it waving to me, sticking up in a mound of overturned dirt. As I approached, Scruffy came barreling down on me, hissing like a snake. Maybe I was wrong, it was just a dumb critter after all, but as it came racing around the corner of the house I pulled back my leg and kicked the beast before it had time to turn around. Well, the stitching came undone again, some parts flying this was, and others that.