Updated: Oct 12, 2020
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The short, elderly woman spoke in a dry monotone as we followed her past the entryway into an enormous great hall that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the first class deck of the Titanic. I was only halfway listening, but I picked up enough to understand that she was reciting the house's history like some kind of tour guide. The home was built in 18-something-something by Colonel someone-someone. It began as a plantation (I knew it!) and then served as a hospital during the Civil War (or, as she worded it, “The War of Northern Aggression”).
As her words droned on, the interior of the manor was busy telling its own story. The hardwood floors with century-old claw marks. The enormous painting hanging over the fireplace depicting a man with side-burns and an I-dare-you-to grimace. The suit of armor, bearskin rug, crystal chandelier. I half expected to see a diamond billboard sign reading, “We have old money, so fuck you!”
The air smelled of tobacco and old books. Voices muffled from far away transferred through the walls. There was a jovial nature to them. Some laughter, even. The place was alive with people. (At least, I hoped that was what I was hearing).
At the base of the grand staircase was a thin door. The woman opened it, revealing a much less impressive set of steps leading down into a basement. She descended, and Jerry followed. I considered the wisdom of staying put, keeping the exit in sight just in case one of us needed to make a break for it. I looked over my shoulder to make sure the door was still there. Not that it would do much good. If things went south again, I knew I wouldn’t make it very far on my own.
When I turned towards the basement, it was already too late to tell them to stop or wait. I looked back at the exit. I was stranded. It’s remarkable, really, that even with my attention being pulled in such opposite extremes, I somehow managed to notice the shelf of books against the wall by the fireplace. Even more remarkable how I gravitated towards it, almost unwillingly, how time stood still, how I forgot where I was for only a moment. And in that moment, I must have pulled a book out and begun reading. It had been ages since I let myself relax and get lost in a good story… Krikrikrikrik.
What the hell am I doing? Time whip-snapped back into place around me. How long have I been standing here? I was already a chapter and a half in. I closed the book and inspected it. “The Basilisk Stare.” It was an Agatha Christie mystery I’d never heard of before. Strange… I thought I’d already read everything she’d written. How did this one escape my radar?
All at once, I became aware of an unsettling presence. A looming shadow. The same feeling you get when a cop car starts tailing you on the interstate. I put the book back where it belonged, then turned around and confirmed my suspicion--I was no longer alone here.
The young woman was silently watching me. For how long, I don’t know, but I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and say she wasn’t Edward Cullening me this entire time. She wore a light-blue formal dress--one that could have been plucked straight from the nineteenth century, complete with a hoop skirt and white, elbow-length gloves. She was about my age (assuming she wasn’t a ghost or a vampire, of course), with piercing blue eyes and black hair in ringlets framing a heart-shaped face. In her hands, she held an old book, the cover worn down enough to obscure the title.
She didn’t say anything. She didn’t smile or nod. She just stood there, quietly staring. I thought this behavior was a little weird until I realized that I was guilty of the same thing. I managed to get out the words, “oh,” and “hi,” in that order.
She turned her gaze momentarily to the bookshelf, then back to me. Her voice was barely more than a whisper. “You’re like me, aren’t you?”
I didn’t answer right away. I didn’t know how to answer. Part of me, deep down, wanted to say yes, but I couldn’t understand why. Instead, I tried, “What do you mean?”
When she spoke again, her voice had a little more heft, “There’s something wrong with you.”
The way she said it carried no malice. It was an innocent statement. I gave an honest response.
“Yeah. How did you know?”
Her next question made the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention.
“The weird stuff... Does it follow you, too?”
I looked around to make sure we were still alone before answering. “I don’t know yet.”
“This way, please!” The old woman had returned. Despite the word “please,” I could tell it was more of a command than a request.
The girl with the piercing blue eyes stepped in front of me, shelved her book, and walked away without another word. This time, when the old woman descended the stairs, I was quick to follow. The sooner we got a call in to the mechanic, the sooner we could leave this place forever.
The underground room smelled exactly how I expected an underground room to smell--musty and damp. A single bare incandescent bulb hung from the ceiling, illuminating our surroundings. A broken grandfather clock against the far wall, an industrial washer and dryer combo, cardboard boxes stacked to the ceiling, and an eight-foot-tall taxidermied polar bear that begged the question, how the hell did they get that thing down here in one piece?
Jerry already had the receiver of the corded telephone between his ear and shoulder when I walked in. His hands held a yellowed phonebook.
“Alrighty, thanks bud… Yeah, you too...” He looked at me with a strange expression. His mouth formed a smile, but his eyes were saying “you’re not going to like what I have to tell you.”
“What is it?” I asked.
He put the phonebook on the table, cradled the receiver, took a deep breath, then answered slowly, “I’ve got good news and bad.”
“You know I hate this game, right?”
“The mechanic knows exactly where we are. He’s sending out his truck for a tow, but…”
“He won’t be able to get to us until morning.”
“Then we try someone else.”
“Yeah, about that… He’s the only mechanic in the entire county.”
“Oh? Did he tell you that?”
“He’s the only mechanic listed in the phonebook.”
“He… what? How is that even possible?”
I stepped over to the table and picked up the book. It immediately opened to the page for mechanics. If I weren’t so paranoid, I might not think anything about it. But the fact that it fell open directly to the exact spot I was looking for registered less as serendipity and more as a red flag big enough to propel a sailboat.
I sighed once I saw that he was right. A single entry under “Mechanics, Automotive.”
I put the book away and said, “That’s fine. We can make it through one night in the car. We’ve survived a lot worse.”
I nearly jumped out of my skin when the old lady began speaking (I’d honestly forgotten she was still there). “If this is what must be, I will not begrudge any travelers the safety of shelter for one night. There is a spare room available on the third floor--the Woodrow Harper suite.”
“Oh, no,” I said. “We couldn’t possibly accept such an imposition.”
Jerry made a noise that sounded like a quack and said, “Uh, yes we can! What are you talking about?”
She insisted, “It’s no imposition at all. My family has long been blessed with the fruits of fortune. It is only right that we extend our hospitality to those in need. However, there is one... condition upon which I must insist.”
“No, really,” I said. “It’s okay.”
“No, really,” Jerry echoed. “Did you say ‘suite’?”
The bad feeling in my gut was growing stronger by the second. “Jerry, do you mind if I talk to you in private for a moment?”
He followed me to the far corner, below the watchful eyes of the dust-covered bear. “I don’t like it,” I whispered. “There’s something wrong here. Something about this place doesn’t make sense.”
Krikrikrikrik. For a flash instant, I thought I saw something crawling up the wall next to us... but upon closer inspection, I realized that there was nothing there. My mind has a tendency to play tricks.
Jerry didn’t bother with the inside voice. “Yeah, I know. It’s creepy as fuck, but grandma over there hardly strikes me as a murder-cannibal. I’m reasonably certain that if push comes to shove, we can take her.”
I looked over my shoulder to see if “grandma” had heard us. If she had, her face didn’t show it. I turned back to Jerry and continued, “It’s not her I’m worried about.”
“Then what is it?”
I took a second to try and find the answer, but realized I didn’t know. Instead, I shrugged.
“Hey, it’s cool,” Jerry said. “If you’re getting bad vibes, we can peace right outta here. But let me ask you this: If your gut is correct, if something is wrong, do you really think we’ll be any safer waiting it out in the car?”
He had a point. Whatever was triggering my nope-radar could probably follow us a mile down the road. But if we did go back to the Nissan, at least I could spend the night with a baseball bat in my hands.
The old woman’s patience must have finally run out. She turned to the stairs and called over her shoulder, “Follow me this way. I will show you to your room.”
Jerry read the look on my face and tried to pump the brakes, “Actually, we’re just gonna rough it in the car tonight. No need to show us to any… oh look, she’s already gone.”
We hurried up the stairs behind her. When we’d all reemerged on the ground floor, she started towards the grand staircase. But Jerry and I took a different route, heading straight for the front door. Just before I could reach the handle, the lights flickered, and a booming noise filled the room, freezing us in place. The sound of a distant explosion lingered for a couple seconds, then dissipated. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought it sounded like thunder...
I broke free from my deer-in-headlights moment and opened the door to see that the sky outside had turned murky black. Waves of thick, torrential rain rocked the trees on the horizon like hands frantically waving goodbye to the world. I’d been through enough tornadoes to know what bad weather looked like, but this… this was something different.
A bolt of lightning cracked open a tree on the other side of the road. A half-second later, the noise washed over us. I instinctively stepped back and shut the door.
Jerry laughed, “I guess that settles it, huh? Looks like we’re hunkering down for the night whether we want to or not.”
“It appears the looming tempest has finally reached us.” Once again, the old woman snuck up on me, only revealing her presence when she spoke.
I turned to her. She showed no signs of concern. No smile or frown. No emotion at all, really. She just stood and waited for me to say something, which, after finally finding my voice again, I did. “You said there was ‘one condition’ to our staying the night?”
“Yes,” she answered. “As you have undoubtedly discovered by now, this is no ordinary Bed and Breakfast. A typical reservation is made a full year in advance. The experience of spending a night in Bedside Manor is quite valuable--in more ways than one. If you will be present, I expect you to behave as legitimate guests. That means engaging in all of the evening’s activities, exploring the various mysteries, and staying in character. Above all else--” She raised her voice to emphasize this next part. “--You must not let any of the other participants know that you did not pay for a room. Is this understood?”
“Clear as mud,” Jerry answered.
“Excellent. Please follow me to your accommodations.” Her explanation was way too much for me to digest all at once. Activities? Bed and breakfast? Character??? She continued to speak as we followed her up the grand staircase, further from the safety(?) of the outside. “Bedside Manor contains thirteen bedrooms: five for guests, three for family, and an additional five for the servants. At one point, it was considered quite progressive to allow the help to live within the main quarters, but Eustice Bedside saw it as an exercise in practicality. Keep your friends close, and your workers closer.”
I hung back a few steps and caught Jerry at a safe whispering distance.
“That storm really came out of nowhere.”
“It’s a cloud burst,” he said with a shrug. “They happen.”
“I got sunburned walking up the hill. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky.”
“Good thing we got here when we did, huh?” He wasn’t taking the hint.
“Yeah,” I said, resigning myself to the situation. “Good thing.”
The old woman reached the top of the landing and waited silently for us to catch up. When we were together again, she continued the monologue, explaining the sordid history of the generations of Bedsides like it would somehow be relevant to the plot or something. I wasn’t really paying attention. I just assumed Jerry was listening and could fill me in later.
Before we knew it, we were standing beside a reddish brown door with a mercury knob and a brass nameplate above the frame that read: “Woodrow Harper. (1846-1857)”
“Do you have any questions for me at this time?” she asked.
“Is there a WiFi password?” Jerry asked.
“Bedside Manor offers a full experience in the immersion of a simpler time. We have neither computers nor television machines. Save for emergencies, the telephone will not be available to anyone during the course of their stay.”
I asked the next question, “And what did you say your name was?”
“My name is Margaret. Margaret Bedside. But you may call me ‘Maggie.’”
“Thank you, Maggie.”
She offered us the key, as well as a strange apology--“So sorry. I’m afraid there’s only one bed in the Woodrow Harper suite.”
I took the key and replied, “That won’t be a problem.”
She looked like there was something she wanted to say but didn’t. Instead, “I’ll leave you two to get cleaned up. Please feel free to use any clothing you find in the armoire. Dinner begins at seven sharp. There will be a chance for social mingling at six. I expect to see you both there.”
With that, she turned and shuffled back towards the stairs.
The room was--in a word--magnificent. There was a king-sized bed complete with its own curtains. A separate sitting area by the book cases. Even a crystal chandelier.
I tried to keep a calm voice. “Jerry, what is your understanding of the situation we find ourselves in right now?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“Not at all.”
“Dude. Check it: This is one of those murder-mystery themed bed and breakfasts!” He could barely contain his excitement. “I’ve always wanted to try one of these!”
He started exploring the room like a kid in a candy shop. “It’s like an escape room mixed with a dinner theater! Here’s what’s going to happen. Someone’s going to ‘die’ tonight, and then we get to spend the weekend playing detective. The reason everything here looks and feels so creepy is by design! Old Maggie’s probably just an actress. This is going to be awesome!” He rushed into the bathroom, then excitedly called out, “They got a bidet and toilet paper! How fancy do you feel right now? Because I’m feeling monocle fancy.”
I approached the window overlooking the front of the property. At the rate the surprise storm was churning along, it couldn’t have much longer to go. Eventually, the sky would have to run out of water, right? “You are aware that we can’t stay here overnight, aren’t you? We don’t have any of our stuff. We don’t have clothes. I left my medicine in the car, and I can’t afford to skip another dose. Not after what happened last time.” I thought about the moment earlier at the book shelf. About the lost time. And then, I thought about the girl with the blue eyes.
Jerry soon interrupted my train of thought, returning to the main room wearing a silken bathrobe around his neck like an oversized scarf. “Yeah, I haven’t forgotten about that,” he said. “Tell you what--when the storm clears, maybe we can pull an Irish-Goodbye. But in the meantime, let’s see if this wardrobe comes with its own complimentary Narnia portal.” He opened the double doors to the armoire, took a step back, and whistled.
“What is it?”
“Hey Jack, what size suit do you wear?”
“I don’t know. Medium? Why?” I crossed the room to see that the piece of furniture held two complete tuxedo suits--formal wear, with tails and tophats (no thank you), shoes and bow ties. Exactly two sets. At a glance, they seemed like they would be pretty close to Jerry’s and my sizes. The pull-out drawers beneath the suits contained socks and underwear. The bathroom contained two unopened tooth brushes.
Jerry showered up first. When he was done, he tried on his clothes to find that they fit perfectly. After my own shower, I wasn’t even surprised that mine fit like every piece had been tailored specifically for me. Coincidences abound, but even Jerry had to admit that this one was a little too lucky.
Everything about this room felt like someone had been expecting us.