**Originally published by Bronzeville Speakeasy**
By Angela Sylvaine
Caroline’s flashlight beam swept across the dilapidated structure of the St. Agnes Hotel. Only two stories, yet it seemed to tower over her. The face of the building was dominated by four columns, perhaps the only thing holding the structure up, and behind the columns darkened windows watched. She craned her neck to gaze up at the peaked roof and the circular window that dotted the center; a rose window, her mother called it.
“There. That’s it,” she said. Eagerness fluttered through her stomach, overtaking the fear simmering beneath. She could do this, would do this. The act itself … well, she wouldn’t think about that. Just take it one step at a time.
Tommy swore as he tramped through the overgrowth clogging the path. “You sure about this, Carrie?”
“Caroline.” She plastered a smile on her face and smoothed the front of her black shift dress. “I prefer Caroline.”
He yanked a can free of the six-pack in his hand and proceeded to open it one handed, still holding the six pack in his other hand.
“Impressive.” She arched an eyebrow.
“Practice makes perfect,” he said with a cocksure smirk.
I bet you say that to all the girls, she thought. She didn’t know that for certain, having just met him days earlier. Caroline had planned for her first time very carefully; had, in fact, made some strict rules for herself—no boys from her own school and no one who was single. A guy with a girlfriend would keep their date a secret.
A gust of wind rustled the leaves on the trees that stood sentry to either side of the front walk and sent Caroline’s curls swirling around her head. The low hanging branches seemed to bend and sway to clear a path for her as she continued up the walk, like they wanted her to keep going, knew it was time.
The trees weren’t so accommodating to Tommy, who cried out when one smacked him in the face.
Caroline’s nerves bubbled up in a laugh, but she suppressed it.
The wide steps leading to the front entrance sagged and creaked beneath her sandaled feet, but didn’t give way. Tommy took a less delicate approach. His foot broke through the worn boards, but he managed to make it to the top.
He chugged the remainder of his beer, crushed the can, and dropped it where he stood.
The ornately carved double doors, decorated with trailing vines and flowers that also appeared to have become untended and overgrown, stood ajar. Caroline slipped through the gap and into the darkness.
“Hey,” Tommy called, still outside. “I’m not so sure about this.”
This time Caroline let herself laugh, though she didn’t particularly feel like it. What she felt was anxious, prickly, about to jump out of her skin. Was she really going through with this? Drawing on every ounce of her will, she called back to Tommy, “Careful. I might have to tell all your football buddies you’re afraid of ghosts.”
That got him moving, and he pushed through the doors to stand beside her. “I’m not scared. It’s just—this place is a hazard. If I break my ankle or something, I’ll be out the rest of the season.”
Caroline didn’t call him on the excuse; it was actually kind of nice that he was nervous, too, though not for the same reasons. Impulsively, she grabbed the front of his shirt and pulled him toward her for a brief, but very hot, kiss.
She broke away with a gasp and pressed her palm to her chest, which was flushed with heat.
“Whoa,” he said, trailing his hand lightly over her back to rest at the curve of her waist.
She giggled and grabbed his hand, leading him across the front lobby.
The space seemed darker, quieter, than it had been on her prior visits, and her trepidation spiked. Don’t be a coward, she thought.
The far wall was dominated by a long desk, still littered with several bound books, a lamp, even one of those little silver bells. A sign reading “Stairs” labeled an open doorway beside the desk. She’d climbed them many times before, but never with a guest.
“Come on, handsome,” Caroline said, attempting to rekindle the brazenness she’d felt just moments ago.
“So, you’re really into all this spooky stuff, huh?” he whispered, crowding behind her as they climbed the stairs.
“My parents died when I was twelve, so I guess I started to wonder about ghosts and stuff after that,” she said, knowing wonder was a generous interpretation. Obsess would have been more accurate.
“Almost there,” she said as they reached the second-floor landing. You can do this, she thought. It will only hurt for a second.
They exited the stairwell into a narrow hallway, the odor of mold and decomposition filling the air. Tommy shined his flashlight first one direction, then the other, exposing water-stained walls broken by hotel room doors, some closed, some cracked open, some swung wide. The room they wanted was straight ahead, the only set of double doors.
“Here it is. The Honeymoon Suite.” Caroline’s fingers trembled as she gripped the doorknob. It wasn’t too late. She could still turn back, change her mind.
But Tommy, perhaps in an attempt to prove his bravery, stepped past Caroline and pushed open the door.
Well, if he could be brave, so could she.
Caroline crossed the threshold and swept her flashlight across the suite, illuminating the peeling wallpaper decorated with swirling loops and whirls. One seemed to twitch and twist in the light, a tiny snake living within the walls. But no. Just a trick of the eyes. A gilded mirror hung on the wall across from the foot of the bed and glinted in the light, but the centerpiece of the room was a wrought-iron canopy bed with tattered curtains hung at the corners of the frame and a yellowing comforter topping the mattress. She’d already laid a clean blanket atop the comforter in preparation.
“Jesus, is that blood?” Tommy’s light stopped on the far wall, where rust-colored splatters stained the wallpaper.
The sight made Caroline’s chest ache, as it always did. “A woman was killed here, right in this room.”
“Killed? By who?”
“Her husband.” A mouse skittered over Caroline’s sandaled toes. She yelped and leapt on the bed. “Yuck.” She sat down on the blanket and laid her flashlight on the side table, pointed outward to illuminate the room.
Tommy handed her a beer, then set the now four-pack at the end of the bed and plopped down next to her. The frame creaked under his weight. “Careful. I’ll have to tell your friends that you’re afraid of a little mouse.”
“Ha, ha.” She drew her bare legs up under the skirt of her dress.
Tommy tossed his head back to flick his hair from his eyes. “So, what happened? Why did the guy kill his wife?”
Caroline opened her beer and took a big gulp. Then she took another. Liquid courage, they called it, and she needed some right now to go through with this, even with the anticipation buzzing over her skin. “They were celebrating their anniversary. Had a fancy dinner, some wine, and booked the Honeymoon Suite. But the woman had something else in mind. She’d found out he was cheating on her and planned to confront him right here in this room.”
Tommy leaned closer, and Caroline realized she’d been whispering. She cleared her throat. “She told him she was leaving, and taking their child with her. He wouldn’t see either of them ever again.”
Caroline drained the rest of her beer.
“He attacked her with his Swiss army knife. Stabbed her seventeen times. The police found him covered in blood and still cradling her body. He confessed, then slashed his own throat right in front of them.”
She just shrugged. His believing or not didn’t change the truth of the matter.
“That’s messed up,” he finally said. “And it’s kinda messed up that you wanted to come here, you know?”
“I know.” Of course she knew. But he hadn’t left yet, so he probably wasn’t going to. And she hadn’t chickened out. Maybe she could actually do this.
“It’s lucky you’re so cute.” He winked at her and cracked another beer. “I still think we should have just gone up to Fisherman’s Point.”
“Not if you want to keep this our little secret from Lisa.” She felt bad for his girlfriend, but Caroline had to choose someone for her first time. Tommy could have easily done the right thing and said no. It wasn’t her fault he was a cheater.
He chugged the rest of his beer, crushed the can, and chucked it behind him.
A draft blew through the room. Caroline shivered.
“You cold, babe?” Tommy rubbed his hands over her goose pimpled arms. “I know something that would warm you up.”
“Wait.” Her pulse hammered in her ears. What was I thinking? I can’t do this, I’m not ready, she thought. “You know what, let’s go. This … isn’t exactly romantic.”
“It’s not so bad.” He scooted over, until their bodies pressed together, and raised one hand to tuck her stray curls behind her ear.
She shivered again, but not because of the cold. The feel of his fingers trailing over the shell of her ear was nice; more than nice. When he eased closer and brushed his lips across hers, she kissed him back, softly this time.
Pulling away, she said, “Are you really sure about this, Tommy? Lisa—”
The gilded mirror flew off the wall and crashed against the bed frame, shattering into hundreds of silvered shards. Caroline screamed.
Tommy jumped to his feet and strode to the end of the bed. “What the hell was that?”
The temperature in the room turned colder, and his breath formed white puffs in the frigid air.
“It’s her. She’s here.” Caroline scrambled to the head of the bed. I never should have brought him here, she thought.
A gust of arctic wind ripped through the room, laced with the odor of rotten meat and dead flowers. The curtains at the corners of the bed billowed and twisted. Frost crackled and spread along the wrought-iron, singeing Caroline’s bare skin where it touched the frame. She pulled away and wrapped her arms around her knees.
Tommy turned in a circle at the foot of the bed, crushing the glass shards beneath his shoes.
A woman appeared behind him, a walking corpse in a soiled, peach lace dress. Red stained her chest in a bouquet of bloody wounds.
She was going to hurt Tommy, and it was all Caroline’s fault. “Leave him alone. Go away. Just go away!” she shouted.
Tommy whipped around.
The corpse lifted her head to expose a partially decomposed face. Her eyes had rotted away and her lips were gone, exposing a permanent skeletal grin.
Tommy’s body quaked with tremors, and his chest rose and fell with rasping breaths.
The corpse reached out and gripped his face in her bony hands. Her clawed nails dug into the flesh of his cheeks.
Frozen, Caroline could only watch through eyes clouded by tears.
Tommy clawed at the corpse’s hands, wrenching chunks of flesh from her bones, but couldn’t break free. A primal scream erupted from his throat. The corpse pulled him close, opening her mouth over his and swallowing his screams.
Tommy’s hands fell away from the corpse, stopped fighting her, stopped trying. His sculpted muscles shrunk and shriveled as the woman sucked the life from inside him, and his tanned skin turned sallow and pale. Even his hair went from brown to gray to white, as if he’d aged a hundred years in only a few seconds.
Caroline gave a choked sob and clamped her hand over her mouth.
The woman released her grip on Tommy and he fell to the floor. Empty.
Caroline stumbled over to his body and fell to her knees beside him. His dead eyes, a milky white now, stared up at her, frozen wide in terror. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, pain stabbing the back of her throat. “I’m so sorry.”
A hand settled on her shoulder and she looked up into the face of her mother.
The rotted away flesh and empty eye sockets were replaced by rosy pink skin and shining green eyes filled with regret. A sad smile stretched across lips that Caroline could still feel on her forehead, kissing her each night before bed.
“Mom.” Caroline stood and threw her arms around her mother. Seeing that smile, feeling the solid form of her, loosened the tightness in Caroline’s throat and she could breathe again.
“He was bad, like your father. He deserved it. You know that.”
Caroline just nodded, tried to swallow. She knew Tommy had chosen his fate when he’d decided to cheat. But seeing it … she hadn’t been ready for that, hadn’t known how hard it would be.
“I couldn’t have lasted much longer.”
“I know.” At first, there had been hotel guests to feed on, and after St. Agnes closed its doors there were the vagrants that called it home. But they’d stopped coming too, scared off. Over the past year, she’d watched her mother’s ghost wither and wilt. Watched her turn into a monster.
Caroline had decided she’d kill to get her mother back.
“The body?” Caroline asked. She hadn’t considered what might need to be done after, hadn’t let herself think of anything past getting a boy into the room.
“Leave it to me.”
Caroline grabbed her flashlight and tip-toed around the shell of Tommy. She couldn’t resist looking down at him one last time. Her first.
“Go on home, sweetheart,” her mother said. “You did well tonight, but you need to rest now.”
Caroline took in the sight of her mother, so beautiful, so alive. Except for the bloom of red staining her chest.
When her mother opened her mouth wide and bent toward Tommy’s face, Caroline hurried from the room, closing the double doors behind her. How long would the nourishment last? How long would it be until she had to lure another sacrifice up to the Honeymoon Suite?
It didn’t matter. Caroline would do whatever had to be done to keep her mother. The first time was the hardest, and Tommy really had only been in pain for a few seconds. Next time, the next boy, would be easier.
“I love you, Mom,” she whispered.