Updated: Oct 12, 2020
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By six o‘clock, the storm had barely waned. If this went on for much longer, my Nissan would be underwater before we got back to it.
On the hour, jazzy instrumental music began wafting up from the first floor--an old-timey phonograph drawing us all together to the great hall for the night’s mandatory socializing. An older man with a walrus moustache and gold-rimmed steampunk sunglasses sat in a leather armchair by the roaring fireplace with a tumbler of amber liquid in one hand. He paid us no mind as we reached the bottom of the stairs.
A bevy of voices drew my attention to where a pair of wall-sized pocket doors had been opened, expanding the great hall into an adjacent room--a parlor big enough to dance in, were one so inclined.
I whispered to Jerry, “Alright, before we get started, I want to make sure we’re on the same page. We don’t know what to expect, and we’re not supposed to be here. I think we need to tread lightly.”
“Like a slug in a salt mine. Got it.” I almost believed him, until he smacked me in the chest and exclaimed, “Hey they got booze! My favorite liquid!” With that, he went straight for the pocket doors. I tailed as best as I could.
Leaving the great hall for the parlor felt like stepping into a different world. Judging by the decor, this was either a ladies’ parlor or the room where they put children when they got too excited. The furniture, standing in stark contrast to the deep mahogany of the previous room, was pink and pastel. The ceiling was painted with a mural of clouds and terrifying cherubs. Every flat surface contained arrangements of dead or dying flower bouquets. It looked like it had been decorated by an alien with no concept of humanity who researched “women” on Wikipedia for ten minutes before getting to work.
As Jerry crossed the parlor to the spirits table below the life-size painting of a nude Venus, I took note of the other visitors. Everyone here was dressed to fit the time period (whatever that was supposed to be). The women had their hair in updos and wore voluminous skirts to exaggerate their proportions. The men were all in bespoke tuxedo suits. (Honestly, male fashion hasn’t changed that much in the last few centuries.)
A dark-haired boy of about thirteen or fourteen surveyed the bar from a safe distance while a middle-aged woman with short, gray hair kept a watchful eye on him. A couple--man and woman--stood in the corner of the parlor, making silly faces and taking selfies with the table statue of a baby with wings and horns. I made a mental note to avoid them for as long as possible, lest I be recruited to take photos.
The girl was also there. The one with the black ringlets and piercing blue eyes. She briefly looked our way when we first entered, then quickly pretended she hadn’t. At her side was another woman, taller, probably a year or two older than me. They looked remarkably similar, though the older one’s hair wasn’t quite as dark, her eyes not as blue, her skin not as pale--like they were made from the same ingredients but different recipes. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume they were siblings. The older sister was the most anachronistic part of the evening, with black lipstick, a butterfly tattoo on her exposed collarbone, and a smartwatch cuffed around her wrist. When she noticed us, she immediately gave me the universal “What the fuck are you looking at?” glare.
Without asking, Jerry put a glass in my hand then set to work pouring and mixing another. I brought the cup to my nose and took a whiff of something that smelled like jet fuel.
“So, what’s our cover story?” he asked. “How about this? I’ll be a fireman scientist, and you can be an astronaut detective. Oh, or you can be a sexy fireman detective, and I’ll be the guy who invented jeggings.”
“I assumed we’d just tell the truth, more or less. Leave out certain details, of course.”
“Aw man, honesty is so boring though. Haven’t you ever wanted to be someone else for a night?”
I wasn’t sure exactly how to answer, but I didn’t get the chance.
“Good evening, gentlemen.”
We both jumped. Somehow, Maggie was there, standing directly behind us. Unless she teleported into place, I have no idea how she managed to sneak up on us yet again.
“Cheesy crust, lady!” Jerry exclaimed, clutching his chest. “Someone should put a bell around your neck.”
She showed no reaction other than launching into another deadpan monologue. “I trust you are paying close attention. The social hour is the most important part of the evening’s experience. This is your best chance for first impressions. Clues essential to solving the mystery of Bedside Manor may only appear once. You would both be wise to cooperate with your fellow investigators. Furthermore, I have it on good authority that not everyone here tonight is exactly who they claim to be.” She cracked an unnatural smile. “Besides yourselves, of course.”
Just as suddenly as she appeared, she slinked silently away, presumably to share the same message with the other participants. Once we were alone again, I asked, “What do you make of that?”
“I dunno,” Jerry said. “But then again, I haven’t really been following the narrative here. What exactly is the ‘mystery of Bedside Manor’?”
“I think maybe that’s what we’re supposed to find out? Like, maybe the mystery is ‘what is the mystery?’”
“A little too meta for my taste.” Jerry slammed his entire drink in one go, handed me the empty glass, burped, and took the full one out of my other hand. “Maybe the ‘murder’ is supposed to happen before dinner. That’s why she wanted us here, so that we’re all suspects.”
“Well, that’s silly. How are we expected to be investigating the murder before it happens? The call to action isn’t supposed to precede the inciting incident. This story frame is all out of whack. Or... maybe not. Maybe I just haven’t been paying attention. Honestly, real life has gotten so strange lately that it’s made fiction obsolete.”
Jerry sipped this drink, smacked his lips, and said, “I stand corrected. That’s a little too meta for my taste.”
I waved at the room with my empty glass. “You don’t find any of this weird or suspicious?”
“Everything is weird and suspicious. That’s what makes it fun. Look, I know you’re nervous. I know you’re used to situations getting out of hand real fast, but we’re on vacation. All of that is behind us. Let’s just go mingle with the nerds who actually paid for the murder mystery package, pretend we’re normal 1800’s aristocracy or whatever, eat the rich people food and drink the rich people booze and have a good time. If shit hits the fan, we take our free suits and duck out.”
Damn. He didn’t realize it, but Jerry just slipped up and showed his hand.
This trip may have ostensibly been about my own mental health, but he was right; “we” were on vacation here. I spent so much time on high-alert, waiting for the next shoe to drop, that I completely overlooked the fact that Jerry had experienced his own fair share of tragedy. When our friends died, when nobody would believe what really happened, when we had to swallow the official cover-up, he was right there with me every step of the way. Maybe I was being a little selfish, overreacting to a few ominous coincidences. Maybe Jerry had the right idea. After all, what good would panicking do, all the way out here, where nobody could help us or even hear us scream?
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll try and dial back the paranoia a couple notches. But can you please promise me one thing?”
“Sure. Anything. What is it?”
“Don’t leave me alone tonight. Okay?”
“Okay. I promise.”
“Hello, gentlemen,” greeted the man as he approached. He was one half of the selfie-couple, tall and well-built, with some light scruff around his smile. His blonde hair was combed back into a sort of mullet style that, surprisingly, didn’t not work for him. He offered his hand--the one that wasn’t holding an empty glass--and introduced himself, “Tobias Kincaid.”
I shook his hand. “Jack. But that’s my real name. I don’t know if we’re supposed to be in character for this part, or…”
“Tobias is my real name. Blame my parents.”
Jerry took his hand next and curtsied. “Jeremiah Cumberbatch, oil prospector and saloon salesman, at your service.”
Tobias gave him a friendly laugh. “You know, I’ve never actually done one of these things before. I’m not exactly sure of the etiquette. All I know is that I’m glad there’s an open bar.” He spoke with the air and confidence of a politician at a fundraiser, the kind of cool-guy sangfroid that I could only dream about.
His other half, a slim woman with long red hair and green eyes, came up behind Tobias, put an arm around his waist, and planted a kiss on his cheek. “Who are your new friends?” she asked in a voice that contained a faint accent I couldn’t place.
“Gentlemen, this is my wife, Bridget.”
She flashed us a perfect supermodel smile and a canned “How do you do?”
“Bridget, meet Jack and Jeremiah.”
Jerry launched into a greeting with a strange accent of his own, “Well met, m’lady. If it doth pleaseth the court, call me ‘Jerry.’ By jove, ‘tis a lovely party, ‘tisn’t’it?”
I attempted to nip this in the bud before he gave everyone a tension headache. “Jerry, you don’t have to do the old-timey voice. Nobody else is doing it.”
“Dothn’t I? Egads, guv’nuh!”
“Now you’re just doing Cockney.”
Bridget laughed politely and said to her husband, “It looks like you may have finally found someone to indulge in your vice alongside you?”
Jerry was quick to respond, “I don’t know what you guys are talking about, but consider me very interested.”
Tobias poured himself a glass of scotch, took a sip, and said, “As fortune would have it, our suite came with a complimentary box of Montecristo Number Threes. Rarely does life afford us a rainstorm, fine scotch, good company, and quality cigars all at the same time. It would be a pity to waste such an opportunity. Can I tempt either of you to join me for a smoke?”
Jerry made a face like he was literally in active pain as he said, “I would love to, but as misfortune would have it, I recently quit smoking tobacco.”
“Oh,” Tobias said. “You traded your addiction for chewing tobacco? Seems like a lateral move.”
I answered for him, “You picked up the emphasis on the wrong word there.”
“I see,” said Tobias with a nod. “How unfortunate.”
Jerry squinted and asked, “You’re not a cop, are you, Tobias?”
Tobias and Bridget shared a hearty laugh. (Man, this couple really liked laughing!) “No, no, nothing like that. Just a boring old research consultant.”
Jerry turned to Bridget. “What about you?”
“No,” she replied. “Just a boring old housewife.”
“Well, gentlemen,” Tobias said, holding up his glass. “Here’s a toast. To new friends.” The four of us clinked our glasses. Jerry and Tobias drank while Bridget and I watched. Shortly after, the couple excused themselves.
Jerry stared hard as they walked away. “Man,” he said. “Those two are absolutely... freakin’… gorgeous.”
“They were also lying,” I said. I couldn’t explain how or why, but I knew they were hiding something. Jerry didn’t seem to hear me.
“It sucks that the beautiful ones are always taken. You know, the concept of monogamy was created and perpetuated by the ruling class as a means of societal control. If humanity were to--”
I’m sure he was about to say something that he thought was deep and/or philosophical, but thankfully fate sent us an interruption. As Bridget went to speak with the woman with short hair, Tobias branched off towards the great hall. The young boy--the one who’d been wall-flowering under his mother’s gaze--took the opportunity to slip away, bumping into Tobias in the process. It was quick, but not quick enough to escape our notice. The kid just lifted Tobias’s wallet like a pro.
Jerry took a step forward.
“Wait!” I said. “What happened to ‘salt in a slug mine’? We don’t want to cause a scene here.”
“It’s cool, dude. I’ll be subtle as fuck.”
I had absolutely no desire to see what “subtle as fuck” looked like in practice. As soon as he marched in, I fell back and looked for a shadow to fade into until the whole thing blew over. Maybe we’ll get lucky, I thought. Maybe Jerry will say or do something just embarrassing enough that we can use it as an excuse to leave the party early, but not embarrassing enough to get us kicked out into the rain.
I blinked. Where the hell am I? In front of me, I saw the bookshelf. That’s when I realized that I’d done it again. I’d zoned out. I’d lost time. I had to face facts, this was starting to become a pattern. My doctor was so optimistic that we’d finally nailed down the perfect prescription cocktail to keep my brain on track.
I pulled out my phone to assess the damage. Quarter after six. Nothing too bad, just a few minutes. Surely I couldn’t have gotten into too much trouble in this little time. I let myself relax, looked back at the parlor, and tried to retrace my steps. I must have come out here to get away from all the people.
I turned back to the shelf of books and noticed one right away--the one with the faded cover--the same book the girl with blue eyes had been reading. I pulled it out, flipped it open to the first page, and read the title: “The Mansion of Madness, by H.P. Lovecraft.” Strange, I thought. I’d never heard of this one before, and I was certain I’d already read everything Lovecraft had written.
Krikrikrikrikrik. Something scurried between my feet. I looked down, but it was gone and nowhere to be seen.
“Well don’t just stand there, come on over and sit a spell.”
That voice came from the older gentleman with the walrus moustache. He was seated in the leather armchair by the fireplace, smiling in my direction. I looked around, hoping he may have been referring to someone else, but there was only me in proximity.
“Sorry?” I said.
“Don’t be afraid,” he laughed. The flames dancing in the reflection of his sunglasses gave the impression of a firey-eyed demon. He showed teeth, then added, “I don’t bite.”
With some hesitation, I put the book back where it belonged, walked over, and took the armchair opposite his. This was inevitably going to be an awkward conversation. I’ve always found small talk to be like running through wet sand--exhausting and in most cases completely unnecessary.
“Hi,” I said. “That sure is a nice fire, huh?” He smiled in silence, giving me nothing to work with. “My name is Jack.”
“Nathaniel Pennyworth Cholmondeley the Third, at your service. I knew you were there. I could hear you walking over. Tell me, is there something of interest on that side of the room?” With the ivory cane that had been resting in his lap, he pointed at the bookcase. That was the moment I realized the man’s sunglasses weren’t strictly a stylistic accessory. Mr. Cholmondeley, it seemed, was blind.
“Just a bunch of books. Nothing you’d be interested in.” I regretted the words as soon as I heard them come out of my mouth.
“I see,” Nathaniel Pennyworth Cholmondeley the Third said with a hearty chuckle. “And what about over there?” he pointed back, towards the parlor. “Is there anything in that direction worth experiencing? Help a poor old man out, would you? Describe what I’m missing.”
“Well, uh, there’s a bunch of people.”
“People? How exciting! Young people? Or just more old folks like me?”
“Well, there’s Maggie Bedside, who I assume you’ve met.”
He grunted an affirmation.
“Then there’s also a mother here with her son of about thirteen or so. There’s this married couple; the wife is a redhead, and the husband looks like MacGuyver. Not that you would know what MacGuyver looks… nevermind. There’s also my idiot genius roommate, Jerry. And, uh, two sisters close to my age.”
“Wow,” he said. “And not one of those people strike you as more worthy of your attention than that shelf of books? It’s true what they say; youth is wasted on the young.”
I wasn’t expecting a soft lecture tonight. I squirmed in my seat and took a stab at defending myself, though I resented the fact that I would even have to. “I’ve never been very good at socializing. Truth be told, I'd rather stand in a corner alone than engage in meaningless conversation with people I don't even know or care about.” Again, I regretted the words a moment too late. I hadn’t meant to be so honest. He furrowed his brow, and I quickly backtracked. “Which is to say, I never know how to talk to strangers.”
Ah yes. Better. That was exactly the right amount of honesty.
“What does a polar bear weigh?”
“I asked you a question. What does a polar bear weigh?”
I searched my memory for context and did some quick math. “I guess in the neighborhood of four-hundred fifty pounds?”
He chuckled jovially. “Enough to break the ice, Jack.”
“That’s what you say when you want to start a conversation. Now, why don’t you go and try it out with the girl?”
“The one staring at you right now.”
I turned to see the girl with the blue eyes, watching from across the parlor. This time, it was me who turned away first.
“How did you know she was looking over here?”
“Some things are so obvious, you don’t need eyes to see them.” He smiled suspiciously.
“Wait, no. No, no, no. That answer doesn’t make any sense at all. Seriously, am I supposed to believe that you could hear her staring from the other room? No, I’m gonna need you to explain yourself.” Anyway, that’s what I wanted to say. But instead, I shook my head for no good reason and said, “Oh. Okay.”
Mister Cholmondeley the Third held out his empty glass. “I hate to be a bother, but could I trouble you for one more favor?”
“Sure,” I said, standing up and taking his tumbler.
“Brandy, if you don’t mind.”
“I’ll be right back.” Frankly, I was happy to have a task. Anything to get me out of having to talk to strangers.
“Hi!” the mother said suddenly, stepping into my path the moment I passed the pocket doors. “My name is Hope.”
Oh God, this is getting ridiculous! Did I die and go to hell? Is this my eternal punishment?
“Hey hey hey,” I said awkwardly. “Do you know how much a bear weighs?”
“I’m not sure. Two tons?”
“Oh my God. That would be horrible.”
“Is that riddle part of the game?” She looked almost as flustered as I felt. “I’m sorry, I’ve never actually done one of these murder mystery parties before.” She reached out and put her hand on my arm like we were somehow already acquainted enough to be on a touching basis.
“No, it was… Nevermind.” I took a half step back and let her hand fall off of me. “What’s up, Hope?”
“I wanted to ask you for your help. See, I’m here with my son, Wolfgang. He’s a very bright boy, extremely talented, but he isn’t the most outgoing. He’s had a hard time making friends back home, and I was thinking maybe this weekend would give him a chance to come out of his shell.” She raised a glass to her lips and took a large swallow. She was full of nervous energy like a squirrel in a dog park, constantly looking back to the corner of the room where the boy was now sitting by himself. I was still trying to think of a tactful way to tell her I wasn’t a good fit for a babysitter when she started talking again. “That other gentlemen you were with. Is he your…” (She blinked several times before finishing the question.) “...brother?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
She laughed like someone had just made a joke, leaned forward to put her hand back on my arm, and said, “Oh good. I wanted to make sure. I want my boy to see normal adults that he can look up to.”
“I can assure you, we are not normal. Hell, we’re barely even adults.”
She laughed even harder and squeezed my arm. “You’re so funny! What did you say your name was?”
Her eyes widened. Then, she dropped a nuclear bomb at my feet. “Oh! Jack Townsend, right? I’ve been looking for you!”
I gripped the glass in my hand and prepared to use it as a weapon. This was an all-hands-on-deck five-alarm freak-all-the-way-out emergency. I could feel it. Something bad was about to happen, and I needed to focus on not letting the panic attack swelling up in my chest overwhelm my senses. I swallowed the festering terror before it could breach the surface, put on a smile, and said in the calmest voice I could muster, “How did you know my last name?”
Evidently, my normal act was passable enough. She took another sip of her drink and explained, “I have one of your bags in my room! Wolfgang and I were walking the grounds earlier. When we returned, it was there sitting by the bed. A backpack full of clothes. I hope you don’t mind that I went through it. I promise, we were just looking for some kind of identification. There were some prescription bottles with the name ‘Jack Townsend.’ I assume the servants must have delivered one of the other guest’s luggage to our room by mistake.” She covered her mouth and said, “Oh! That’s okay for us to say right? ‘Servants’? I mean, that’s what they are, after all. I never know what I’m allowed to say these days.”
“Excuse me,” I said as I rushed past her, scanning the room for Jerry. I had all the evidence I needed now. It wasn’t just a feeling anymore. Something wasn’t right. I didn’t know what or how or who or why, but I knew that this was a situation, and we were much better off not in a situation. It was time for us to go. To duck out. To pull an Irish-Goodbye. But Jerry, like my sense of calm, was nowhere to be found.
Where the hell did he go? I told him not to leave me alone! Maybe someone already got to him, and I’m next! I tried to shake the thought out of my head. I needed to focus. He probably just went to get a good seat at the dinner table. Yeah. Sure. That sounds like something Jerry would do.
There was a doorway on the other side of the parlor that I assumed would lead to the dining room. I dropped Mr. Cholmo… Cholmon… (what was his name again? Eh fuck it. Let’s just call him Nathaniel from now on). I dropped Nathaniel’s glass off next to a bouquet of half-dead flowers, went through the door, and immediately realized that I had made a mistake. I was in a hallway now. At least, “hallway” is the best word I could think of to describe it. The space didn’t go anywhere specific. Just a long, narrow, straight corridor as far as I could see. Something about the pattern of the lime-green and purple wallpaper and upward slope of the checkered floor created an optical illusion when I looked at it for too long, giving the impression that the space went on forever, leading nowhere. It made me dizzy. This house was impossible. If Jerry went off on his own, there’s no telling-- Holy shit!
The girl with the blue eyes. She was right here next to me with that same intense look on her face. Who was she? A character? A guest? A ghost? Was she even real?
“What?!” I exclaimed.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” she whispered.
“What, you mean in this hallway? Is that even what this is? A hallway?”
She said it slower. “No. I mean, you’re not supposed to be here, Jack.”
Her face told me that she was being deadly serious. “Yeah. I know.”
“Where do you think you go when you’re not here?”
Amazingly, I understood her question. She was referring to my episodes. The lost time. Those moments when I lose my connection with my body. I’ve wondered the same thing. Where do I go when I’m not in my body? And more importantly, who’s running the show when I’m not here? I understood the question, and yet, I couldn’t understand how I understood her question. I couldn’t understand how Claire knew to ask the question in the first place.
“Do we know each other?” I asked. “Have we met before?”
Claire shook her head, no. “But this place is going to bring out the worst in you,” she warned. I almost introduced myself, but then I remembered how she already used my name. Then I realized that, somehow, I already knew hers. Claire and I must have talked earlier. How else did she know all these things about me? How did I know that she lost both of her parents in a terrible accident almost a year ago? That she hated the cold as much as I did? That she was scared, even if she didn’t let it show?
“They’re watching us,” she said. “They’re studying every--”
An urgent voice called out from the parlor, “Claire? Claire! Where are you?” A moment later, the girl with the butterfly tattoo rushed through the doorway. She stopped when she saw us. “Oh,” she said, casting a distrustful look upon me. “Is everything okay out here?”
I waited for Claire to answer, but she didn’t say anything. She didn’t even acknowledge the other person in the hallway with us. Eventually, I cleared my throat and tried to defuse the situation. “Yeah, everything’s fine. We were just talking.”
They were both staring at me now. The older one’s eyes felt like daggers. I tried a different tactic. “Do either of you guys know how much a polar bear weighs?”
The girl with the butterfly tattoo grabbed Claire by the shoulders and turned her so that they were facing one another. In a soft voice, she said, “Claire, will you please go back to the party? I’ll be right in there, okay?”
Claire didn’t answer. Or at least, she didn’t answer her. She turned back to me and said, “Follow the smoke.” With that, she shuffled back into the parlor, leaving me alone with the older sister.
“Hi,” I said. “Jack.”
She had the aura of a shark who smelled blood.
“Nice to meet you, Loren.”
“No it isn’t.” Loren crossed her arms. “Are you a vegetarian, Jack?”
“Good.” Before I could process what was happening, Loren had already grabbed my shoulder, pulled me towards her, and put a cold knife against my cheek. “Now listen here you little shit, if you bother my sister again I swear to Christ I’ll cut off your dick and feed it to you. Understand?!”
I thought carefully about my answer, eventually settling on a non-threatening “Yes, ma’am.”
She held the weapon there for a tiny eternity before releasing her grip and lowering the blade. I stayed perfectly still as she stepped backwards. She never looked away from me as she folded up the butterfly knife with a well-rehearsed flourish, slid it back into her glove, put a finger to her lips, and backed through the doorway into the parlor.
A second later, I remembered to breathe.
Okay. I thought. That was almost definitely not part of the game.