The cracks and fizzles of the car radio drowned out the voices—one male, one female, rising and dipping in harmony. Camille and George were silent: there wasn’t much to say. Ahead, the twin heat signals of tail lights veered to the right. Camille and George watched as the car in front of them exited, leaving them alone on the highway.
The headlights illuminated a small segment of rainy road like a torch in a long hallway. Camille twisted the steering wheel, following the silver arc of a guardrail. A hotel sign buzzed past in wet neon. Again, No Vacancies. George’s forehead crinkled and he looked in her direction. She ignored him, watching the road lines through the watery glass.
“The next one,” she said.
The odometer ticked off more miles and the wipers swished, interrupting the conversation of heavy breathing and sparring glances. A neon sign appeared above the highway. The rain hid the vaulted metal supporting it. The sign read: Dreadnought Hotel, Next Exit.
“You going to…” he started to ask.
“Might as well.”
Camille turned the car off the highway. The exit became a cracked single-lane road, pulling them through tree groves. She wondered if she missed the turn when another sign appeared, jutting out from the ditch, reading: Dreadnought Hotel, Ahead.
The hotel was small, its parking lot empty. If not for the missing wooden boards and rotting deck, it could have resembled an idyllic log cabin. Rain pounded on the slanted roof. Unlike the other signs, the one above the front door was missing the letter R. Its bright, sizzling letters were the ancient building’s only anachronism. The door itself was slightly open as if someone on the other side was letting in a breeze. A light flickered in the window nearest to the door while another flickered upstairs, fainter and stove-flame blue.
Camille parked in front and exited first, leaving her bag in the car. George followed her into the rain, deciding whether or not he should hold her hand. His fingers stayed in his pocket. They walked inside and the door creaked shut behind them. No one tended the reception. Camille rang the silver bell on the counter, eyeing the brown book stacked on the wood. The word “Guestbook” was engraved in the leather cover. George looked respectfully in another direction, admiring the pictures of bison skulls on the wall.
“Looking for a place to stay, are we?”
They turned around and saw the man. His smile was broad and bony, his clothing dark. He moved past them, opened the collapsible part of the counter, and slipped behind the reception desk. His face was unremarkable aside from the curly black mustache.
“Yes, one room,” Camille responded.
“You picked the right night for it.”
“If you like rain,” George said.
The man winked at him and handed Camille the key. It was long and rusted, with the ring attached to a wooden block. The number nine was carved into the block’s splintering surface. Camille pulled her wallet out of her pocket.
The man shook his head. “Your room is upstairs on the left. You pay tomorrow.”
“How much is it?”
A pound resounded from above. George looked up and sawdust falling from the ceiling like snowflakes.
“The price includes everything.”
“I don’t have to sign?”
The man chuckled. Camille wondered if anyone had ever left in the morning without paying.
“Where would you go?” The man asked without expecting an answer. He disappeared down the corridor behind the desk.
Camille’s phone vibrated in her pocket. She pulled it out and saw that the caller was her husband. George watched her thumb hover over the screen. She canceled the call and turned the phone off.
“Are you sure about this?” George asked.
She handed him the car keys, her fingers lingering on his. “Bring in our bags.”
As he stepped outside, George shrugged away a clenching sensation in his chest. The rain had stopped. Cicadas conversed across the parking lot, and crickets cascaded into a steady chorus, rubbing legs together like lovers. George pulled their bags out of the trunk and saw the sickle-shaped moon break from behind a cloud, its beams turning the pine needles white. He checked the box in his pocket before hauling the bags into the lobby.
“I almost forgot.” The man was behind the desk again, holding two slips of paper in his hands. “Every guest gets a free drink from the bar. I would recommend either of the house spirits.”
He sunk back into the corridor again. Camille turned to George, her eyes running along his pear-shaped beer-belly, his nonexistent neck, his patchy blonde beard, and—after rushing past the bulging mole on his cheek—her gaze rested upon his single pleasing feature: his sapphire eyes.
“I’m gonna need at least one,” she said, snatching his hand and leading him down the dim hallway. Identical doorframes flashed by. Beneath the golden chain of one propped-open door, George saw pale skin: an arm or leg, sparkling in the sliver of darkness. He stopped for a second before Camille tugged him along.
The barroom was small and bare, with two stools, one counter, and two empty glasses. A fire crackled and spit sparks. A dartboard hung above the fireplace, its surface clean of pricks, the darts nowhere to be found. The rest of the wall was littered with sepia photographs and monochrome sketches. George noticed that every picture featured a different couple in front of the Deadnought sign, always holding hands. He wondered how long ago the hotel was built.
They sat at the bar. Camille set the drink coupons on the counter and rang an identical silver bell. The mustached man appeared behind the bar, wearing the same black clothing and toothy smile.
“Looking for spirits, are we?”
“Yeah, what’ve you got?”
Two bottles dangled from the man’s hands; George followed their sway. Liquid sloshed around within the glass cases, colored black in one and clear in the other. Two short thumps echoed from the wall.
“They’re both spirits,” the man said, filling the first glass with the dark liquid and the second with the light. “What difference does it make?”
“As long as it’s strong,” Camille said, draining the first glass. George followed suit with the second one, gagging and coughing when he clinked the glass on the countertop. The two thumps sounded out again and George glanced at the fireplace, trying to remember the last time he heard sparks make such a sound.
“How long have you worked here?” he asked the man.
“Forever,” he replied, taking their empty glasses. “But I’m leaving tomorrow morning.”
“Why is that?”
“The hotel has a lot of turnover.”
“Enough chatter,” Camille whispered to George.
The man chuckled and retreated through the kitchen door. Camille stood up from her stool. As he followed her out of the barroom, George saw the dartboard. Two darts were embedded in the center circle. George rubbed his eyes with his fingers as if he was clearing out the morning muck.
In the lobby, their bags were missing.
“Someone probably took them up,” Camille said over her shoulder, taking the stairs two at a time. Their hands nearly unclasped on the landing, and George moved faster to keep pace. By the time they reached the door to room nine, neither of them was thinking about the bags. Camille thought about her inevitable next-day shouting match with her husband. George thought about how different it is afterwards with a married woman. Camille thought hard about turning the key inside the lock, trying to keep her mind off her husband. George thought hard about if it would be hard to get hard—he was a lightweight, with clinical whiskey-dick. Camille thought about the phone tangled within her pants on the floor. George thought about whether the time was right to remove his own pants and pull out a condom from the box in his pocket. Camille thought about taking off both of their clothes to speed things along. George thought about how incredible it was that she was taking off his clothing for him. Camille thought about the last time she received a useless fingering from her husband after he sprained his groin. George thought about how, in a certain light, the three fat rolls on his chest could be mistaken for abs. Camille thought about telling George to cut the foreplay and get on with it. George thought it was strange that such a beautiful woman was asking him for sex.
Camille thought about the man on the bed below her and not her husband: Not my husband, anybody but my husband—Oh fuck!—not my kids, not my husband, George’s eyes— There!—Not there…—look at George’s brilliant blue eyes, not his fat stomach for fuck’s sake, his eyes—Yes Marcus!—No, George…—you’re not my husband, not my husband, anybody but my husband.
George thought about the woman on the bed above him and her family picture: Her husband and kids last summer on a beach—Oh!—I’m screwing his wife, his mom, her mom—Oh!—her breasts are bouncing but his wife, his mom, her mom—Oh!—there’s a light behind her, rising rising—Oh god!—it’s a woman, another woman’s in the room!
Camille fell off George, landing on the bed beside him. A screech rippled through the air. George cowered against Camille’s shoulder, his mouth open, the words choked in his throat. They stared at the shining woman, who stared back. The skin on her arms and legs was paler than chalk, and her body was wrapped in a bedsheet. Her hair flowed down to her knees, its transparent color camouflaged against the fabric.
“It’s a rare skin condition,” the woman said. “One of you will understand.” She smiled as the light from her body poured all over their naked limbs. “Did you need your linens changed?”
They were silent for a moment before Camille muttered, “No.”
The woman laughed, looking down at the sheet covering her body. “They’re not very useful anyways.”
She retreated towards the door of the hotel room, hiding back in the entrance hallway. “Enjoy the rest of your night.”
Camille started to reply but the woman was gone. They waited for the slam of the door that never came. Moonlight throbbed behind the window curtains. The antiquated antennae television powered on in a flood of static. The dresser swung open, revealing two bags hung from coat-hooks. A gust blew the dresser shut, and George knew that it would never open again. A candle-flame flung smoke against the gilded mirror and the glass shattered soundlessly, the shards hanging in the air like reflective fireflies. The sound of a chain groaned out from the walls: metal grinding against metal, coils slinking along floorboards.
George burrowed his head further into Camille’s shoulder blade.
“Something was in those drinks,” she said resolutely.
The bed sheet peeled away from their sweaty flesh, turning and tumbling above like a banner in a breeze. It dissolved into the air in a quick burst of light. The bed began to shake. Camille and George gripped the headboard, hoping the frame wouldn’t collapse. The bed shook faster and their bodies were lifted up. The sweat on their skin turned icy. Before her body collapsed and her consciousness crumbled away, Camille thought again of her husband’s tanned face. The image was piercing by blackness.
The lovers woke at the same instant. Outside it was night, and rain pattered in from the window. The woman got out of bed first. She watched her reflection in the gilded mirror as she pulled on her black pants and shirt. The man stood behind her, his chubby, shiny body wrapped in a bed sheet. The woman felt a bulge in her pocket and pulled out a photograph and cell phone. In the photograph, a tan man on a beach smiled, his arms around two children. Her gaze hovered on the picture before she tossed it in the garbage, not recognizing any of the faces. She turned the phone on and the screen blinked, reading: New Voicemail. She set it on the desk, unable to think of anyone to call.
The man saw a piece of notebook paper on the floor near the door. The woman picked it up and held it in front of their faces.
Dear Present Keepers of the Deadnought Hotel,
Thank you for the spirited evening. It was the single memorable moment from our time here. Apologies for all of the cheap tricks last night: you were our first visitors in forever, and we wanted to give you the best Deadnought service possible. In time, you’ll understand. All of the rooms have been restored to their original state. We leave the hotel in your capable hands. There is little for you to do but drift and wait, growing ever more tired of each other. What else are lovers good for?
The Past Keepers of the Deadnought Hotel
The lovers left the letter in the room. By the time they crossed the hall, descended the stairs, and passed the chains outside room two, the letter was forgotten. They kicked the two bags on the lobby floor to the side. They passed by the counter and the Guestbook, which was open to the two most recent entries. They ignored the front door of the hotel; even if they had looked in that direction, they would have only seen a wall. They went on to the barroom and let go of one another’s hands. The man in white tossed two darts and retrieved them from the board over and over again. His aim was erratic in the beginning, but with the passage of time it became perfect. The woman in black stood at the bar, twirling bottles in each hand like glassy batons. Neither of them paid attention to the newest photograph on the wall: a dark-clothed, mustached man and a long-haired woman wrapped in a sheet, holding hands in front of the Deadnought Hotel sign. To the lovers, the couple in the photograph were just tourists who had passed through long ago.
Henry Hietala grew up in Bozeman, Montana. His work has been featured in Inklette, Medusa’s Laugh Press, and The Spark.