Always Wear A Hat

Submitted into Contest #96 in response to: Start your story in an empty guest room.... view prompt

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Horror Suspense Fiction

Rob gave it a last scan to check he definitely hadn’t left a light on or a stained teacup on a bedside table. Satisfied, he shut the door on the empty guest room.

His wife, Ali, was fussing in the linen closet at the other end of the landing. She turned when she heard the door close, gripping a lavender coloured hand towel to her chest like a shield.

“Is everything okay in there?” she asked.

“Yes, all good for…whatshisname’s arrival,” Rob replied. As he drew closer, he noticed Ali’s eyes looking somehow paler than the cornflower shade he’d initially been struck by eight years ago. He saw the slight tremble as she folded the towel back onto the shelf and reached for a green one instead.

“Is everything okay in there?” he asked, gently stroking the back of her head. The only answer was an almost undetectable shrug of the shoulders. A sign he had learned to interpret as “don’t push me”.

“Guess I’ll go into town now to pick up the breakfast supplies and collect…thingy.”

“Neil,” Ali said, leaving Rob floundering for a moment wondering if he’d heard a name or a command.

“Right. Thanks, Ali-Pally. See ya later.”

* * *

Neil put his rucksack down on the white wooden chair in one corner of the room. The place seemed pretty sparse and had no en-suite, but it would do, he figured. His original booking nearer the town centre had been cancelled last minute. He adapted his evening plans accordingly. He would now be writing about his travels in England so far, and getting a decent eight hours’ sleep, instead of making women swoon in bars when they heard his American accent ordering a Thatcher’s Cider or a Whitstable Bay Pale Ale.

“The hosts (Rob and…Alex? Something like that) seem pleasant. Rob v talkative on the drive. Asked me if Florida is really as wacky as they say. I said it was hard to tell from Utah. Noticing tendency of Brits to think our country’s as small as theirs. His lady was kinda quick in giving me the tour and pointing me towards her room. Guess it can be draining having strangers coming and going all the time.”

There’s something about noting the tiredness in others that makes us pay more attention to our own. Neil put his pen on the table by the bed, then scrolled through some of his messages. He assured Mel, the struggling chanteuse he’d briefly dated but ended up being better as friends with that no, he wasn’t yet wearing a top hat (“but I've got the pocket watch and snuffbox”) and told Dom, a work friend, that he was sorry to hear everyone liked the temp filling in for him more than Neil (“so I might as well start eating all the Cadbury’s chocolate I bought for you ungrateful bastards then huh?”). Neil laughed to himself seeing the dots rippling as Dom urgently tried to repent, switching his phone off before Dom's backpedalling had the chance to come through.

He tried going through some of the events and attractions leaflets he’d scooped up from a rack in the train station but only got halfway through them when his eyelids started to droop. The scent of fresh bedsheets, such a pleasant change from sweating bodies and fast food on public transport, made him dream of laying down in an English meadow while chocolate bunnies in top hats bounced over his head and into the horizon.

So when he heard the burble of a child’s laughter, his mind told him it was part of the dream.

Then the giggle became a mania which became a shriek and Rob woke clamping a clammy hand to his mouth which had begun a shout of its own.

“What the-?” He looked at the pillow. Nothing but a wisp of moonlight from a gap in the custard coloured curtains. He looked under the pillow. Rationality telling him there would be nothing under there but feeling the need to check anyway.

“S’gotta be the anti-d’s.” Months before the trip, Rob had seen a shrink who finally persuaded him that pills might be worth a shot. The guy hadn’t been so forthcoming, however, in advising him about all the side effects that Rob had looked up later on the internet. One of the frequently reported ones being vivid dreams.

When his heartbeat started to slow, he began drifting off again, noticing he was beneath the same lampshade he’d seen in at least two of the other spare rooms he’d crashed in on his tour. Did these hosts all share the same catalogue for their soft furnishings, or

The wardrobe door interrupted, rumbling like a teacher coughing pointedly to get a schoolkid to concentrate on sums instead of doodling.

Rob’s eyes snapped open while his bowels threatened to loosen. He wasn’t imagining it. The double doors of the wardrobe he’d tried to hang his jacket up in earlier and found locked were actually rattling. He felt like his heart had split in two and was trying to join in with the noise by pounding on each eardrum.

The door swung open and a yellow ball bounced out. Rob watched, paralysed, until it rolled right under the bed. He flew out onto legs that were shaking so badly they threatened to send him in a similar direction to the toy. Not taking his eyes off the edge of the bed, he fumbled around, slapping a hand on the walls searching for a light switch, eventually finding it after seconds that felt like days.

He forced himself to crouch down and peer under the bed. No ball. Was another of the side effects visual hallucinations? His frenzied mind wouldn’t allow him to scan its storage for that piece of info. He stood there as though fixed to the floorboards, eyes flitting from the wardrobe back to under the bed, until realising he was falling asleep again on his feet. He peered into the wardrobe on his way back to bed and discovered it full of children’s toys, most still in packaging.

“But they never mentioned a kid,” Rob murmured. “Must be for a niece or nephew or something?”

He checked the time on his phone, which told him his chances of managing a walk before breakfast were looking increasingly slim. Of course, picking up his phone led to the reading of more messages, swiping away news alerts – eyes still flicking to the wardrobe every other second, then to online forums of people who had similarly strange episodes with their furniture.

“This ain’t gonna help me sleep none,” Rob muttered. Then an idea popped into a head already fighting between fatigue and fright – why not make the phone do the work? He opened the video recorder and propped the phone against the lamp, training the glinting circle of the camera eye on the room. Knowing there was a guard standing watch, he fell quickly back to sleep and into another dream, where rabbits had been replaced with tennis balls, thrown by unseen hands.

* * *

“Neil?” Rob cocked an ear to the door, then knocked on it again, louder. There was a muffled yelp. “Sorry mate, just wanted to let you know we’re going out a bit later. So if you want a cooked breakfast and a lift back to the station it’ll have to be soon, or we can leave you to help yourself to cereal…”

First a night of interruptions, now a morning of interrogations. Neil couldn’t catch a break, or forty winks. Still, a cooked breakfast always won and in five minutes he was sitting with his hosts at the small dining table, busying himself with demolishing the scrambled eggs Rob plated up. Ali put a cup of tea down for him that was too full, cursing when some slopped over the side. Rob beat Neil in the race to mop up, with Neil observing how quickly he calmed his wife with soothing words and touches. She was the control freak, he the one of honeyed tones that matched the his shade of his hair. A good match, the guest decided.

“Sleep alright then?” asked Rob, around a mouthful of toast.

“Hah, not exactly,” Neil said, feeling the uneasy glance his hosts gave each other rather than seeing it. “Some pretty strange stuff happened, actually.” He was about to describe the laughter and the wardrobe that spitted out balls, but something he caught in Rob’s expression when he did look up, a tiny tilt of the eyebrows, made him make a rapid amendment to his recounting. “I think it’s to do with these new sleeping pills I’m trying out.” He didn’t want to tell the couple he’d only just met that he was taking anti-depressants in case they wanted to listen in on him using the bathroom thinking he was about to slit his wrists rather than go about his morning ablutions, and besides, the pills did help him sleep. Usually.

Ali drained the contents of her cup and pushed back her chair with a squeak that made Neil wince.

“I’m going to mow the lawn,” she announced.

“Oh, okay Ali. Sure you don’t want to wait for me to-”

“It’s fine.” She was out of the room before Rob could finish his sentence.

“How do you like Radio 4 in the morning, Neil?”

“I have literally no idea,” Neil replied. The two men finished their breakfasts in silence, listening as a world of different nightmares poured out of the box Rob had switched on. The events of the guest room seemed to shrink in size to make room for them and Neil almost convinced himself they maybe hadn’t happened at all, until he went to pack and saw his phone still balanced on the bedside table.

* * *

“You okay mate?” Rob said as Neil climbed into the passenger seat. “You look white as a ghost. Maybe it’s our weather. We do more cloudbathing here than sunbathing, sadly.”

“Um, maybe.”

“Alright. Haven’t forgotten anything – toothbrush, phone charger? Only the wife has a draw chockful of things other guests have left behind.”

And a wardrobe filled with children’s toys, thought Neil. “Don’t think so.”

“I’ve got time actually to take you back a different route if you like, see more of the countryside?”

“That would be nice, thanks.”

Rob was a careful driver, slowing down at all the bends – of which there were many – in the windy roads he chose. Neil sat enraptured with the thrill of the scene unfolding in front of him, rather than having to turn to look at it out of a side window – or not being allowed to look out at all, if he ended up sharing a coach with someone wanting the curtain drawn. Rob swung out to give a couple of walkers and their child, a little girl with a high ponytail, more space. Neil saw the girl laughing at something she held in her hand; perhaps a treasure like a shining horse chestnut or an acorn with its little hat.

“There was something I wanted to ask you about,” Neil began.

“Yes?”

Poor dude probably thinks I’m going to ask what’s a decent café to go to or what park’s the best for a walk round here. “It was the weirdest thing. Last night, I thought I heard laughter. Then – I swear – a ball bounced out of the wardrobe and disappeared.”

There was no response from Rob and what Neil could see of his features was unreadable.

“You probably think I’m crazy.”

“No-no,” Rob assured him. “I was just thinking how it hadn’t happened for a while.”

“What?”

“Some of the other guests have reported goings on as well. The last one before you, about six months ago, was a woman who had heard blocks falling down in the night. Like Jenga. You know Jenga, right?”

“Sure.”

“Ali and I,” Rob began, then sighed.

Neil took his eyes off the bewitching green canopy forming the tunnel of green they were currently passing through. He watched as Rob chewed his lip for a second before returning to the tight polite smile, the default of one who has had to do a lot of smiling for their partner but has perhaps forgotten how to help themselves.

“Ali and I, we’ve been trying for a child for many years now. That guest room you stayed in, we’d originally meant for it to be a nursery.”

Neil felt the surrounding tunnel of leaves he’d felt so cocooned by suddenly turn cold. Claustrophobic.

“Sadly, Ali’s had…problems. Miscarriages. Five in fact.”

Brown liquid slipping over a cup’s edge.

“I’m so sorry to hear that,” said Neil. Rob continued without acknowledging, his eyes clouded with thoughts of past struggles.

“All five occurred either when she’d been in that room – decorating, putting together bits of furniture – or having just come out of it.”

The echo of a child’s laugh.

“We’re selling up now. The memories, the superstition, it’s killing her. Us.”

Neil didn’t know if he should let the man continue in what was clearly so painful a story, judging by the cracked voice and the knuckles whitening on the steering wheel, or change the subject. What did Brits like to talk about, the ones who weren’t flirting with him about his ‘Yankee’ accent? He wracked his brain trying to remember the latest addition to the royal family – no, wait, don’t mention kids.

“That’s why we’re advertising the room for short stays. Mate, you wouldn’t believe some of the solicitor fees involved in selling a house. Charge you just to shake their hand, it seems.”

The imprint of small, grubby fingers on the phone screen.

Rob sped up to overtake a tractor. Neil felt his eggs lurch to the side, like they wanted to escape the car as much as he did.

“Sorry you had such a rough night of it. Doesn’t always happen. Not with every guest.”

Then why the hell me! – Neil wanted to shout.

“And it’s usually been women. A couple of times, ones that have found out they were pregnant while actually staying with us. Can you believe it? Who leaves a pregnancy test kit in another person’s bathroom?” Rob swore as a pheasant narrowly escaped his tyres. Neil noticed the driving had become less cautious. He was relieved when he saw a sign saying the station was only two miles away and the sun freed from dense trees.

A yellow ball bouncing under the bed.

“Sorry we didn’t warn you. Ali and I discussed it and we just felt it isn’t necessary to mention. I mean, there’s a small quotient who’d probably pay double to stay in a haunted nursery – flippin’ nutjobs – but it doesn’t always happen, and like I said, it’s usually our lady guests that report stuff.”

“It’s okay,” Neil said, thinking it really wasn’t.

Three pale, solemn figures in his phone’s camera roll, one sucking her thumb, one holding a teddy, one holding out the phone to capture them all.

The station finally came into view, to Neil offering respite akin to finding an oasis in the desert. He had the door open before the car fully came to a stop.

“Sorry again about you and Ali. I hope the move goes well,” said Neil, swinging his rucksack onto his back.

Rob gave him a salute. Neil watched him pull away and although he truly wished them the best, hoped he never saw the man and his wan, wisp of a wife ever again.   

Later, when he got bored with looking out of the train window at cows grazing, Neil pulled out his phone. There was a message from ‘Chelsea UK’.

Who the hell is Chelsea UK? ­– he thought…then remembered the shot glass against pink lip gloss, the hand fondling the fringe on his jacket, later the smooth thighs slick with sweat sticking to his hotel sheets, the lotus flower tattoo on the small of her back.

He pressed to open the message.

“Hey, you did definitely wear a condom, right? Only I’m late. And I’m never late.”

June 04, 2021 18:32

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