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Hotel  California

All rights reserved. ©Davina Rush 2012

On a dark desert highway, cool breeze blowing through my hair, I found my mind wandering and shifting with every passing mile. A tormented theater of pain that I could not escape, try as I might. The radio had lost signal miles ago and the landscape around me offered no alternate distraction. It was a never-changing sea of desolation, dusty colored brush dotting what little I could make out of the roadside. My headlights showed no more than that, but I knew that was all that surrounded me in this barren place; nothing but parched earth, shrunken trees and the ever-vigilant sage for miles and miles in every direction.

And so, my mind continued to roam over the endless, bitter terrain. Faces flashed, voices echoed— memories that cut like old rusty knives, stabbing again and again. It had been months since the car crash, but it felt like only yesterday as it replayed in my mind. The blurred vision, oncoming headlights in a rainstorm, our car swerving hard into a ravine and Carrie screaming in terror as she desperately reached for our child but was jerked away. Then, there was nothing. Absolutely nothing. Everything that I loved most in this world was ripped away from me within mere seconds. In one breath, they were gone forever.

I alone, the most unworthy of creatures, had been the sole survivor on that cold November night. My wife and our three-year-old daughter had both died in the crash, while I lived on— unwillingly. The bitter taste of survival was a constant bile in my mouth. I was a monster. I shouldn’t be alive and yet, somehow, I felt that living was the punishment I had earned for what I’d done. Every single day passing by in a vacuum of pain, reliving what I could remember of that night over and over again in excruciating detail —this was my Hell and I deserved it.

A small part of me wondered how I had strayed so far from my path in life. How I had come to be the hollowed out shell of a human being that had caused their deaths. My mind briefly touched on the time I had spent in the military, sent to war in Afghanistan— and the aftermath. This is where I chose to lay my blame for the wretch that I had become. The oppressive days in service had sucked the life out of me. And then, there was my back; a shattered replica of the human spine. This was the result of a near-fatal explosion and the multitude of surgeries that had followed. The surgeon had done all he could, but the pain only got worse— and so, the prescriptions came swarming into my life. My new best friends, Oxy and Xan. It wasn’t long before those little white tabs had become my go-to for everything and a doorway into much darker places. Feeling pain, pop a pill. Stressed out, pop a pill. Pissed off and needing to cool down, pop a pill and smoke a joint— maybe a shot of whiskey to move things along. That’s how I had coped with the torment that plagued me every single day; the physical pain— and the mental. I’d been to war, seen things that no one should ever see, done things that I could not be proud of, then came home wounded and feeling completely useless to my family. I didn’t even feel like ‘me’ anymore, I couldn’t connect. My life was total shit— or at least that’s how I had felt. I had lost sight of reality, lost faith in everything—and then I’d lost my wife and daughter. And now, my life really was total shit and I wanted desperately to be erased from this earth. I wanted more than anything to be with them again. But alas, deep down, at the core of my corroded soul, I was a Christian man, born and raised. If I killed myself, I knew I’d never see my family again. For surely, they were in heaven, and suicides, well, they go somewhere else— or at least that’s what I’d been told my whole life. So, straight-up shooting myself was not an option, but living as recklessly as possible until my luck wore out seemed okay in my book. “I’m on my way darlin’,” I whispered to my ghosts.

I pressed the gas pedal to the floor, pushing my ’65 Impala as hard as she would go. The wind whipped my shaggy brown hair in and out of my eyes as I reached for the dials on the radio, hoping the signal had picked up. I was in desperate need of a distraction, wanting to push away the images of their smiling, trusting faces. The radio offered nothing but static. I groped in the passenger seat, determined to turn off that light switch in my head. I wanted to feel nothing, think nothing, be nothing. I grabbed one of the little orange bottles and popped it open. The contents were a little on the lite side, maybe three tabs left, so I tipped the whole bottle up to my mouth, chasing them down with a shot of whiskey. No great feat for me these days, just a drop in the bucket. It would buy me a few miles of peace though, especially if I added a little smoke to the cocktail. I felt in the ashtray for the joint that I’d rolled for the drive and brought it to my lips. Flipping my zippo open, I sparked up, inhaled and snapped it shut with expert skill. The warm heady smell wrapped around me like the embrace of an old friend and my mind fell away little by little, piece by broken piece. I was finally able to check out, switch on the autopilot and just cruise. Probably not the safest way to be driving through a desert where canyons like the Rio Grande lay hiding within the horizon, but I didn’t care. Let the earth swallow me up!

The earth, much to my dismay, did not devour me. Instead, the road went on in endlessly winding ribbons of black, as if I’d never see civilization again. It was so easy to forget those places even existed. The desert night was so complete, compared to the city that I’d left behind. Only the stars, a sliver of moon and the car’s dull headlights showed the way. It seemed another world entirely.

A couple more cars passed in the opposite direction and then the highway was mine alone, not another vehicle in sight. And that’s when it started. It began with thin silvery wisps that hung in the air— something I didn’t think much of in my current state of mind. I had been surrounded by smoky clouds of my own making for miles, so it did not immediately register that these clouds were outside of the car. Slowly they grew thicker and thicker, until a dense fog swirled all around and I was forced to take notice. “Shit!” I cursed, flipping on the high beams. This only served to make the white haze more opaque, reflecting the light uselessly back at me. I slowed the car to a crawl and dimmed the headlights, squinting to look for a road that no longer seemed to be there. It felt like I had driven off the edge of the world into nothing. Then, up ahead in the distance, a light flickered into view. It was dim at first, just enough to pierce the hazy air, but it seemed to be growing brighter as I moved slowly forward. I thought it was a car with one headlight or maybe a motorcycle, another driver lost in this damned fog.

It was not a headlight.

My car inched along over what sounded like the crunch of gravel, rather than the smooth asphalt of the highway, but I barely noticed the change in terrain. My focus was entirely on this beacon of light as it drew me in, inch by inch. Finally, I reached the source and stopped the car in complete disbelief, shaking my head to clear the cobwebs. “What the hell?” I blinked. It was a lamppost. A beaming light within glass, encased in black iron— an honest to god, real lamppost. My mouth lay open in confusion, looking up at this misplaced icon of city life. I rubbed my eyes and shook my head again. “Wake up, man!” I said aloud, thinking I must to be out of my mind. I’d traveled this highway hundreds of times and never seen any sign of civilization, especially not a lamppost. There was nothing on this highway as far as I could remember; just one long drive through an empty desert. I cocked my head in further disbelief as I noticed something more. Beyond the lamp, barely visible in the murky air, there was a gateway that opened on a footpath. Brows furrowed, I tried desperately to grasp the situation, looking all around the car in every direction. The highway was completely gone in the fog, but there was this path and this one solitary lamppost. I couldn’t make sense of it. None of this should be here.

I put the car in park and cut the engine, so I could think. The silence that followed was eerie. It was a vacuum of quiet so complete that I could hear my own heartbeat thrumming in my ears. I squinted, trying to follow the path beyond the lamppost with my eyes, but I could see nothing as the trail faded away into the depths of fog. I felt drawn to it, for a moment at least, thinking that perhaps I should see where it led to. But my gut fought against this notion, screaming at me to get back on the road. In my time as a solider, I had learned to listen to my instincts when they amped up like this. I put my hand on the keys, poised to start the engine, when a second light flickered into existence beyond the lamppost, beyond the pathway. My hand slowly dropped away from the ignition as I stared in complete disbelief. It was a candle. Its tiny yellow flame glowed in a soft halo around the silhouette of a woman standing in a doorway. She held the candle aloft so that I could see only a hint of her pale white face, eyes sparkling in the light as a slow smile spread across her red lips. My thoughts raced without traction, spinning wheels in a mind that had obviously lost all hold on reality. Only moments ago, I had been driving at reckless speeds through an empty desert. Now, I was parked in what seemed to be the gravel driveway of a decrepit old Victorian house in the middle of nowhere, hosted by this beautiful creature. I couldn’t wrap my mind around the situation. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t even move. I could only stare in a drugged stupor at this odd mirage that lie before me.

“Sir?” The sound of a masculine voice, so close, made me jump. I quickly turned to my window, the source of the intrusion, while simultaneously reaching for the loaded pistol that lie in the passenger seat. “Whoa, man! Calm down!” The man put his hands up in submission and took a step back from the car. “I’m with the hotel,” he said, nodding towards the decaying, gray structure. I took a moment to process this and then lowered the gun, laying it at my side, still wary. The man slowly relaxed and gestured to the locks. He looked young, maybe in his twenties, though he dressed like he was from the 50’s and spoke like he was from some other place. His hair was greased back, dark and shining in the lamp light. He wore blue jeans and a white t-shirt with a black leather jacket. He seemed to notice me looking him over and replied to my unspoken question, “Bit late for the formal valet attire.” He shrugged. “We weren’t expecting any new guests.” His smile was broad and crooked on a cleanly shaven face. He gestured again to the locks.

“Oh”, was all I could manage, “I uh…”

“We gotcha, man. No worries,” he chuckled, cutting off my pointless stammering with a smile that never seemed to reach his dull gray eyes. “You look pretty beat. How about we find you a place to rest your head?” The man was politely opening the car door, ushering me out into the night. “Been a rough road, huh?”

I didn’t remember hitting the locks but decided that I must have as I hauled myself heavily out of the car to face him. “I guess so.” I let out a short huff, as if it were meant to be a laugh, though I didn’t find any of this amusing. “I must be more tired than I thought.” I stepped away from the car, running shaky fingers through my unkempt hair. “Probably a good idea to stop for the night. Especially, since I don’t even remember stopping.” We both chuckled mirthlessly as I handed over the keys.

“Name’s Billy,” the man said, offering his hand.

“Er yeah, Michael—Mike,” I stammered, shaking his hand and then looking back over my shoulder at the car.

“Relax, I’ll take good care of her.” The young man smiled, closing his hand around the small collection of keys. He slid into the driver’s seat and shut the door. “Enjoy your stay, Michael.” He gave a kindly salute as he drove away with a low rumble of the engine. The car faded and then disappeared into the night, as if it had only been a passing memory, a dream. My stomach lurched. Had I really just handed my car over to a perfect stranger—in the middle of nowhere? I started to panic, taking a step in the direction he had driven off, feeling the urge to run after him. Just as I had begun to move, a loud bell rang in the distance and I stopped dead in my tracks. I stood, listening as the sound resonated throughout my entire body. As quickly as the anxiety had erupted, it vanished along with the car into the mist. My thoughts scattered once more.

Looking around, the tolling of the bell seemed to be coming from behind me, away from the hotel, but I saw nothing there in the fog. It must be 3am, I thought briefly as I counted. There had been three long chimes that still reverberated through the night skies, reminding me of the mission bells I’d left behind in Texas, along with everything else. With each dull clang of metal resounding through my mind, I relaxed a little more, the panic falling away like sand through a sieve. In moments, I had forgotten about my car entirely, forgotten the highway, forgotten everything that pulled at me from the real world. I was simply here and now, my thoughts like dreams that drifted in and out, scattering like mice if I tried to shine a light on any of them. I closed my eyes for a moment, filling my lungs with the cool desert air. I really was too tired to go on. I was ready to rest, and I just didn’t care anymore. I was ready for whatever this place was, come what may.

“Hello traveler,” a feminine whisper brushed my ear, warm and so seductively close. My eyes snapped open. I turned quickly to where the voice had just been at my side, but there was no one. I could still feel her warm breath on my neck, but there was only fog around me. I turned back towards the old gray building and sucked in my breath, startled that the woman who had been in the doorway was now standing at the threshold of the path, only a few feet away from me. A moment of confusion and maybe a little concern traveled through my mind, but I quickly lost the thought as she beckoned to me. “Come”, she whispered, her hand outstretched. My thoughts came and passed like water through grasping fingers and she smiled as if she saw my struggle and was amused by it.

The woman did not move from her gateway. She did not attempt to meet me in the gravel drive but invited me to join her, and I did. Her gray eyes sparkled playfully, promising good times and sanctuary, drawing me to her like a moth to a flame. One foot in front of the other, I gravitated in her direction, while looking over every picturesque detail that lie before me. I’d never seen a woman like her, so luminous and unearthly in beauty. Long platinum hair cascading in loose waves over the pale green satin gown that sheathed her body. The watery fabric hugged and caressed every curve that my eyes found there. I could almost feel my hands traveling over the smooth silken landscape, my mind involuntarily wandering into seductive scenes of less fabric and more flesh with this mysterious goddess.

Carrie, my wife’s name bloomed in my mind like a chastising reminder from the grave. I felt ashamed as I forced my eyes back up the length of the woman. I met her penetrating gaze and it seemed that she had been waiting for me there. She smiled broadly, as if she knew my fantasy and thoroughly approved, then turned gracefully to lead me down the moonlit path without another word. The saintly thoughts of my wife quickly faded once more, drifting away as I followed the hypnotic sway of the woman’s hips. She held a candle raised at her side as she led the way up the porch steps, and I followed along dutifully, without question.

We crossed the threshold of the hotel, one after the other, in silence. The decaying gray structure and the cool sage-scented air of the desert abruptly gave way to the warm spice-filled air of the glowing sanctuary within. It was a warmth that washed all through my body, making me feel strangely at home in this foreign place. The woman set her candle on the foyer table next to a gilded book that she carefully opened, the spine cracking softly. Her ruby lacquered fingertips whispered over the pages until she found what was looking for and then she lay the book flat, moving aside. Handing me a quill pen, she gestured quietly for me to sign the registry. I did as I was prompted, scrawling a sloppy signature in the next empty space below the many others that had gone before me. It was a small measure of comfort, knowing that I wasn’t alone in this strange place. I lay the pen down next to the book, my mind still lagging in a fog as I stared at the inky scribbles.

“Welcome, Michael— to the Hotel California,” she whispered in my ear from behind. Her hands were on both of my shoulders guiding my view away from the ledger I’d just signed and towards the glorious gallery room before us. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she breathed proudly and I nodded in silent reply, unable to articulate any response to what I was seeing. I was in complete awe. It was so surreal, every bit of it like a dream. Where I had been swallowed in darkness before, accepting the damp cold fog, I was now washed in the glow of this place, feeling oddly lite and expectant. I didn’t know what I was expecting, but I could feel it like something lay around every corner waiting for me and I was anxious to seek it out.

I looked up at crystal chandeliers that hung from the ceiling, glimmering in shards that seemed to illuminate every corner of the space. The walls were papered in white, with gold leafing designs and a collage of mirrors that further echoed the jeweled radiance of the parlor. The room had an almost blinding glow to it that was only muted slightly by the red velvet sofas that were set about the area. The plush fabric beckoned to my weary bones, promising rest at last. The pull was so strong, but my attention was quickly diverted by the sound of voices down the corridor. There were many people talking all at once but only one conversation reached my ears clearly as a couple glided down the halls away from us. “This is such a lovely place!” the woman said admiringly. “And you have such a lovely face.” The man came back playfully, obviously flirting with his beautiful companion. The woman’s laughter echoed down the passageway, melding with the clanging of glasses and a myriad of other voices somewhere that I could not yet see.

“Don’t worry,” my hostess cooed reassuringly. “We do have a lot of visitors, but there’s always plenty of room here at the Hotel.” She moved to my side, hooking her arm in mine, moving us both forward. “It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but it’s much bigger on the inside. Wouldn’t you say?” She winked aside at me. The curve of her red lips reflected the shimmering lights around us and I was lured back in, completely captivated.

She led me down the same hall that the couple had disappeared through, passing a collage of framed photographs displayed on the wall as we went by. In one frame, I saw the smiling face of my lovely companion as she leaned against a black Mercedes Benz, jewelry glinting in the night lights. The photo seemed alive somehow; shadows changing, her red dress rippling in the breeze, the glint in her eyes. It seemed as if her copied image might blow a kiss or wink at me if I looked long enough, but she urged me onward. There were more frames on the wall that included other people, patrons of the hotel I guessed. Photo after photo, she stared back at me again and again, posing with one person after another, both male and female. Was that Elvis? I wondered, trying to look more closely even as I was propelled past what had to be an imposter of the long-dead king of rock and roll. She laughed, amused by my fascination. “I do have a lot of pretty friends,” she smiled wide, acknowledging the vast collection that filled the walls. Her face was alight with pride and something else that I struggled to define. Something darker and yet, in her features, somehow seductive and lovely to witness. She was a beautiful enigma, a puzzle that taunted me, her smile a cage of secrets and I wanted in. God help me, I wanted in. I desperately needed to know the mystery of her and of this place. It pulled at me, even as it felt so wrong. It felt like selling my soul to the devil, every step I took further into the belly of the hotel, but I couldn’t stop myself.

“Where are we going?” I asked, finally finding my tongue and my own thoughts, past the foggy compliance. Each word felt like cotton being pulled from my mouth in some hollow version of my own voice. A troubling thought that quickly drifted away, as all other thoughts did in this place. Nothing ever stuck for long, it seemed.

“Why, to the party of course!”, she laughed like the tinkling of bells, so sweet to the ear. I looked to her, about to ask more questions, when I noticed how she was dressed. I had been sure that she was wearing a long, pale green satin gown when first we’d met, but now I saw that she wore a black cocktail dress. I really am losing it, I decided, more firmly convinced that I’d overdone the dose in the car, knocked myself out or finally met my end. But that thought faded into the smooth black fabric that now hugged every curve of her hourglass figure. So delicious! I thought without inhibition.  High heels accentuated long smooth legs that begged to be caressed. Elbow length gloves sheathed her arms, protecting against the smoke that billowed from a cigarette in her free hand. Her jewelry was dazzling, diamonds like ice crystals dripping from her ears and neck. She was absolutely mesmerizing. I didn’t want to take my eyes off of her, but we had now come to a pair of over-sized glass doors that opened into an outdoor courtyard and my attention was quickly drawn away. While she greeted the doorman, I took in the new atmosphere. Clanging glasses, moving bodies and laughter reached out, pulling me into the beautiful chaos. The scene before me was another surreal dance of colors, sounds and smells, but very different from the gallery we’d come from. The first room had been all elegance and shine, velvet and gold; whereas this courtyard was purely feral and coarse, wood and sky. The ambience was more intoxicating than a train of tequila shots.

An array of tropical plants seemed to exhale throughout the room, their warm breath hugging my body. Tables glistened with watery rings that waited for yet another glass. A mixture of different smokes floated throughout the space, swirling together and into my waiting lungs. I closed my eyes and inhaled the room; cigarettes, marijuana, and something darker, sweeter and more potent moving through the clouds.

I opened my eyes as I exhaled, taking in the people that populated the courtyard. There were couples entangled, kissing passionately in dark corners, as if no one could see them. A man sat at the bar loading something into a pipe as a woman joined him. The same woman lifted her glass to the bartender in request and he answered with a nod and a pour. Another woman danced alone in the center of the courtyard, drink in one hand and a smoke in the other, eyes closed, caught up in the music. A couple, closely embraced, swayed in time to— “Wait. What are they dancing to? There’s no music.” I asked my hostess as she rejoined me. I listened harder, thinking maybe something was playing low, but there was nothing.

“Ahh,” my companion chuckled. With a contented smile, her eyes closed as she savored the energy of the room. “Mmm, yes. Some dance to remember—and, some dance to forget. They don’t need music to know what moves them.” She swayed to and fro in a slow dance of her own before meeting my eyes once more. “What is it that moves you, Michael?” Her slender hand reached to trace the line of my jaw, searching my eyes as if she were hunting for something. She didn’t give me a chance to answer, nor did she care for my reply as her attention flitted away from me in an instant. “Captain!” she sang across the room, unconcerned with my confusion as she waved to the burly man at the bar. Her face lit up as the bartender acknowledged her with a lift of his chin. Silvery gray eyes turned to embrace me once more, but only long enough to reinforce the magnetism that would compel me to follow her anywhere. We glided towards the bar, swimming through a sea of faces that both intrigued and disturbed me; some smiling, some lost in thought, some sad, some pleading. The momentary concern I felt was quickly washed away by her voice. “Michael, meet Captain Tom,” she said as she leaned into the bar, maybe flirting with the man just a little. “He was an airplane pilot back in the day. Weren’t you, Tom?” The man looked up briefly and then nodded with a clenched unshaven jaw. My companion sighed with a little shake of her head, “He’s a quiet one, my Tom.” She patted the bar, breaking up the stalemate. “Captain, if you would be so kind, bring us a bottle of the house wine. You know the one.” She winked and the man nodded in response, silently disappearing into a back room. “He’s a bit touchy about his flying years, if you hadn’t noticed,” she spoke softly aside to me.

“I noticed,” I said, looking from her to the door Tom had went through.

“His plane went down,” she said this so casually, as if it carried no weight with her. “He’ll never fly again because of that day. Just couldn’t get back on the bull.” She shook her head with a shrug, and was lost in thought for a brief moment, then snapped back. “Anyways, how about that wine?” she said just as Captain Tom reemerged with an especially dusty bottle. “It is a very special vintage,” she said with a smile. “You’ll see.” I looked to her with trust, to the bartender with curiosity, and to the bottle suspiciously.

“We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969,” said a man as he slid onto the barstool next to me. His smile was openly mischievous as he looked to my companion with those same strange gray eyes. I thought the similarity was notable and for a moment wondered if they were related, but the thought fell through the cracks of the rough floor boards beneath us and was quickly forgotten.

“Only the best for my friends!” our hostess said loudly and was rewarded with cheers from the crowd around us. “Are you joining us then, Rick?” They both smiled as if they’d shared some private joke in that question, something that I didn’t get. My brows furrowed, but quickly relaxed to the sound of the bartender pouring two glasses full of the deep red wine. Music to my ears. I was suddenly mad with thirst and eager to have my share.

“Not tonight, lady,” Rick chuckled in answer. “I’m just going to stick with the usual and try to get out of here.”

“Good luck,” she laughed.

Captain slid the crystal vessels forward, blood-red liquid sloshing only a little, teasing and tempting my hand forward. Our hostess smiled approvingly as I took mine, then took her own in hand. She inhaled the smell that swirled in her glass and then held the delicate chalice aloft for a toast. “To pretty friends and gilded cages!” she sang joyously. Everyone cheered to this, while I held my glass up in confusion at the odd choice of words. She drank deeply and then nodded at me to do the same. I looked to Rick who had just slammed a shot of whiskey and was turning to leave, then I looked back to the woman at my side. My concern for the unusual toast washed away at the sight of wet wine on her blood red lips. I watched, mesmerized as she took another swallow, long lashes lying against pale cheeks as she savored the taste. Again, she motioned for me to drink and I obeyed, bringing the glass to my lips. She laughed and leaned forward to kiss me lightly on the lips, lingering only a moment. “Oh, we’re going to have such fun, you and I,” she purred with a smile, her face so close my own.

“I don’t even know your name,” I laughed. I tried to play it cool, but every muscle in my body had just gone tight as a bowstring.

“You will soon enough,” she whispered. “It’ll be the one you’re screaming out in the night.” She moved closer, her body brushing against mine. I took another long swallow of the wine, trying to steady my nerves and figure out my next move. I was seriously rusty at this game, and she was way out of my league. I took a deep breath and sat my glass down. Tentatively I raised my hands to her hips, where they were already pressed against me.

The last thing that I remember was the bar tender, Captain, topping off my glass with the deep crimson. The woman dipped one finger in the red liquid and smoothed it over my hungry lips. The wine moved over my tongue like the most luxurious velvet and satin. It seemed that in the very next moment I was swimming in that same blood red satin as I awoke entangled in sheets that moved like cool wine over my bare skin.

My eyelids opened slowly, like the heaviest of draperies not wanting to lift, not wanting to let in the light that stabbed at my tender pupils. Still half-drunk, I blinked until my vision cleared and found that I was staring upwards into a ceiling of mirrors that loomed high above where I lay. I looked at myself curiously in the reflection, so small and strange, nestled in the large round nest of red and gold. I turned my gaze slowly to the left, trying to make sense of my unfamiliar surroundings. A bottle of pink champagne winked in the soft light of the room, chilling in a frosty, silver bucket of ice on the bedside table. I lingered on the sight a moment longer, my mouth dry with thirst as I watched a single rivulet of condensation trail down the glass. My drunken fascination was interrupted by the faint whisper of fabric and the clink of something metal—I wasn’t alone. I quickly turned to my right, searching for the source of the sound. Across the room, haloed in the light of a hundred scattered candles, the woman from the night before stood in front of a mirror. Her back was turned to me as she combed through her long pale tresses and smiled at her reflection—or was she smiling at me? Gray eyes reflected tiny hints of candle light, and yes, her eyes were locked on me. “Where am I?” I barely managed to breathe the words as I held her reflected gaze. Talking felt absolutely laborious, my lungs so painfully heavy and straining at the task. I felt like death.

“Right where you should be, my love,” she spoke softly, smiling. Her answers always seemed strange to me and I felt unease creeping in again. Something was starting to feel very wrong about this place. The people, the wine, this strange woman. How did I get here— in this place— in this bed? And… “Where are my clothes?!” my voice rose slightly in alarm as I realized that my only garment was the satin sheet that lay across the lower half of my body. Her eyes played seductively over my bared flesh as she moved across the room towards the bed. She was like a predatory cat, slinking closer, eyes fixed on me with sharp intention. I squirmed into a somewhat sitting position, gathering the sheets tight to my waist. “Look lady, I don’t know exactly what happened last night, but I’m a married man,” I stumbled through the words, my heart racing. I tried to sound strong and unyielding, but the word vibrated painfully through my chest— married. No, Carrie was gone now. I knew that, but it didn’t change how I felt, my connection to her, my devotion. No matter how much time passed, I still felt my wife near me, waiting for me with our little girl. That’s where I wanted to be, that’s where I should be. Not here. Not in this place. Not with this woman.

“She’s gone, Michael,” the woman breathed the words, as if she had read my thoughts. Closing the distance between us, she moved nearer with her satin night dress dancing over every curve like water, closer and closer. I moved quickly to my feet, gripping the sheets tight around my middle, backing away.

“Hey, it really was nice meeting you, but I gotta to go.” My heart felt like it would beat out of my chest in a panic. “I’m not supposed to be here,” my voice was thick with fear and emotion. I felt like a caged or cornered animal. My eyes darted around the room, searching for my clothes and the exit, while also keeping an eye on her.

“But you can’t leave.” Her voice was disbelieving, as if she were shocked that I would even consider such an idea. “You can’t,” the statement was firm now and almost menacing. She seemed too confident that I would not be going anywhere, and this terrified me. But then she smiled wistfully, slowly moving closer, her hand coming up to caress my face. I melted into her palm, under her spell once more. “We are all just prisoners here, Michael,” she whispered, her eyes glistening as if she might cry, though she did not. “Tis a prison of our own making. The proverbial gilded cage.”

What?” I breathed dreamily as I stood there, frozen, absorbing her touch. “I don’t und—” I was cut short as she put one slender finger over my parted lips. She closed the small remaining distance between us, pressing her body hard against mine. I tried to move away but she held me firmly in place. She was surprisingly strong. Every curve of her form fit perfectly to me, her body singing to mine with so many electric currents moving between us. Both fear and desire gripped me all at once, my rational mind battling with the primal male urges of my anatomy. She ran cool fingers through my hair and down my neck, sending chills racing through my spine with the rake of her nails. And again, my fear and confusion fell away like dust blowing in the wind and I was simply there, with no past and no future to look to. I could think only of the beautiful creature that stood before me and the intense need to worship every inch of her body— to obey this siren’s call.

“You’ll stay for the feast, at least. Won’t you?” She murmured in my ear, her cheek lightly brushing mine, her warm breath on my neck— so intoxicating. The slight pleading in her voice aroused me further, as it also eased the terror that had gripped me with the word, cage. Her asking if I’d stay made it sound as if I had a choice and this soothed my mind. The desire to leave, to run screaming from this place, drifted away from me as if I’d never even had the thought. I nodded, mutely agreeing to her invitation and she smiled triumphantly. “Good boy,” she purred, fire blazing in her cool eyes as if she would devour me on the spot. Her fingers slid behind my neck to pull me closer and I closed my eyes in extasy. I could feel her mouth hovering over my own only moments before I tasted her sweet kiss. Every fiber of my being had wanted to run away only moments ago, to escape this madhouse, but now I felt her words like a weight settling in on me. I felt her embrace like chains binding me, her deep kiss like a magnet holding me rooted to this place, holding me to her. I breathed her kiss deep into my lungs and submitted to those ravenous demands, losing myself yet again.

Everything moved in disjointed, jerking pieces from that moment, like an old silent movie. I didn’t even remember dressing for dinner after she’d taken me back into her bed of satin and yet, here I was, walking down a long hallway in a black suit and tie, arm in arm with my ever-present companion. I looked sidelong at her, trying not to be obvious in my perusal of the stunning red gown that clung to her body in all the right places. All of her clothes seemed to be cut in this fashion, hiding nothing from the greedy observer. I noticed that I had a red rose tucked in the pocket of my jacket to match her. We were a classy pair, the two of us floating down the hallway, elegant and dashing in our dinner attire. She walked with the confidence of a runway model, while I followed her lead in mock fortitude, though inside I was a confused mess. My mind raced for short spans of time and then was lost in her fog again and again. In one moment, I would feel terrified of being caged in this place, then I would switch gears to being the willing prisoner at her side. One moment I would think, I still don’t know her name, and the next minute I’d think, what does it matter? One moment I would panic, wanting to turn back for the way out, then within seconds the fog would envelope my mind and I was content to be right where I was. My rational mind could not get a firm foothold, no matter how hard I tried. It was as if she’d drugged me on top of my already doped up state of mind. Again, the panic—and then the fog—her voice…

“Being invited to dine in the Master’s own chamber is a great privilege,” she was saying with an air of importance. She took a drag from the cigarette that was perched at the end of a long, jade cigarette holder and then exhaled a cloud of smoke that trailed behind us. “He gathers only his most favorite guests, and those who pique his interest.” She looked pointedly at me, one eyebrow raised. “Such an honor,” she winked. She seemed very satisfied with my accomplishment in the Master’s favor, though I couldn’t imagine why he would find me the least bit interesting.

The Night Man waited at the end of the long corridor, hands stiff at his sides, guarding two huge French doors. The Master’s chambers, I assumed. “Good evening sir,” he greeted me stiffly, his eyes holding mine like a steel trap as he bowed politely. “Madam,” his tone changed to one of admiration. He had shifted to meet her eyes and his face softened for the beauty that met him there. He was an unusually tall man with dark, slick hair combed to perfection, with a thin matching mustache. He wasn’t young, but he wasn’t old either, though his eyes seemed ancient beyond years, with his studied and penetrating gaze. “If you please,” he said politely as he opened the large doors, ushering us into the room beyond. His stature and the very deep timber of his voice was unnerving, though I tried to seem unaffected as I tipped my head to him in reply and moved forward.

The dining chamber seemed a bit dark and yet absolutely vibrant. The walls were papered in crimson with blackwood chair railing and matching paneling beneath. The dining table was also made of lacquered blackwood, though it had a design inlayed with gold and rubies. All of this would make for a very dark room, but it was brightened with gold accents that shimmered all around and the soft candlelight that reflected in the crystal chandeliers above. I was quickly brought back to present by the myriad of faces around the table that commanded my attention. The group had been animatedly talking when we first entered the room, though now they had grown completely silent, all eyes on us.

A man at the head of the table stood. The Master, I was sure of it. “Come. Join us, my friend.” He gestured welcomingly with one long arm toward the two empty seats beside him. He was a very tall, debonair man in his sleek dinner jacket—well groomed, though his wavy black hair was long to his shoulders. His dark, shadowed eyes followed me as I moved to take the offered chair closest to him. “It has been so long since we added to our number,” his voice was deep and rich. Everyone smiled and murmured some response or another to this, their faces turned reverently towards him. “We are quite honored to have you, Michael.” He smiled, raising his glass and toasting to the pleasure of my company, “We all welcome you— to the Hotel California!” The rest of the room followed his lead, glasses clanging together with cheers, followed by excited chatter.

I raised my glass to his and accepted the warm welcome, though I again felt the need to stake my claim of freedom. Once the cheering faded away I spoke aside to him, “You have a lovely place here, sir. I do regret that I cannot stay longer.” I offered the condolences, seeking a release from the hold that seemed to be on me. I felt that if only one person here would acknowledge my free will to go, then I really could leave. Otherwise, I kept feeling like I’d stay for just one more dance, just one more drink, just one more night. I wanted so badly to leave, while at the same time I had no gripping urge to walk away.

“You signed the book, did you not?” the Master asked very seriously, narrowing his eyes at me, his long nails tapping in one impatient succession.

“Well, yes, but—”

“Well then, it’s settled!” he boomed cheerily, clapping his hands together, ignoring my silent plea for release. “I hope you’re all hungry!” his voice rolled like thunder throughout the room. Everyone cheered at this, ready for the main course of the feast to be brought out. The Master’s eyes glinted mischievously as he signaled the door man with a wave of his hand. I gingerly took the linen napkin before me and placed it in my lap, resigning my hopes for a bit longer, anxious to see the celebrated dish that was on its way. I did need a meal before hitting the road anyways, I reasoned with myself as I settled into my chair, tamping down the anxiety once more.

“You’re going to love this,” my hostess whispered, nodding towards the door our food would emerge from. She slid her hand up my thigh beneath the table and I jumped slightly at her touch. She smiled, painted lips glistening in the candlelight, and my blood raced. I groaned, embarrassed to be so aroused while in such company. The master looked aside to me with a devilish smile, as if he knew. Everyone at the table seemed to be looking at me, each face wearing a different expression; amusement, disgust, lust, indifference. I felt my cheeks burning hot as I adjusted the linen in my lap and politely moved her hand away. She only laughed, enjoying her little game. She kissed my ear and I relaxed into her, the anxiety melting away once more. “It’s time,” she whispered.

The serving door swung open and the first two servants came through with the smaller platters of food; boiled potatoes, carrots, onions— all the trimmings for a roast. I immediately felt my mouth watering in anticipation. When was the last time I’d eaten? I wondered, truly not remembering. It had obviously been too long, as I was now completely ravenous. Everyone at the table seemed to be just as famished and anxious to begin, tucking in their linens and picking up their utensils. It seemed a bit unmannered to me, but I was quickly distracted by the two servants as they placed the dishes neatly within the elegant setting of the table. They bowed to the Master and then exited the room. There was only a short span of time before the door banged open again and this time applause erupted throughout the motley gathering. A giant of a man came into the room now, moving toward the table with an equally large covered tray of the finest silver. All the guests eagerly stood, and I noticed then that the only utensil in their hands had been knives. “What the hell?” I whispered, putting my hands on the table as if I were bracing myself, though not knowing why. It seemed like the bizarre stuff of dreams, knowing that what you were looking at wasn’t quite right but unable to truly grasp the gravity of its wrongness, unable to look away or to run as that seemed like further madness. My hostess giggled excitedly at my side as the man hoisted the huge tray up and onto the dining table with a loud thud and clatter of dishes. He kept his hand on the lid, something banging beneath the cover, and he looked to the Master. We all looked to the Master as he nodded to the chef with a slight curl at the corner of his lips. Chef nodded in reply, took a deep breath, and then jerked the lid free, quickly stepping out of the way.

My eyes bulged in shock as the lid was removed to reveal an enormous, bristly, black boar— still alive and very very angry. The creature got his bearings in an instant and swung razor-sharp tusks around to face me. As if this sight hadn’t been terrifying enough, just as I thought he would charge straight at me, the elegantly dressed dinner guests then leapt at the beast. I was both appalled and terrified as they began stabbing him viciously with their large steely knives flashing in and out of the writhing body, slinging blood with every barbarous retraction of their many blades. I couldn’t move for the shock of it all. The animal screamed loud and shrill, refusing to die, thrashing wildly within the circle of killers who laughed and laughed, their expensive dinner attire soaked in crimson, their grinning faces splattered in gore. And all the while, the Master sat at the head of the table sipping his blood-colored wine, laughing at the nightmare, as if they were merely playacting for his amusement. He caught me watching him in my dumbfounded horror and winked at me with a twinkle of amusement in his black beady eyes.

I couldn’t breathe. Blood was flying through the air in all directions. I felt it raining down on my head in large splats that quickly dripped down into my eyes, blinding me. I fell back in my chair, the taste and smell of bloody iron gagging me as I scrambled to get away from the carnage and chaos. I ran hard in the direction where I thought the exit had been, but instead met with a hard surface that knocked me flat on my back. The pain was brilliant, spreading from my head throughout my entire body in excruciating waves—more pain than I thought made sense if I’d only run into a wall. I gasped frantically, unable to breathe. I blinked in blood; dizzy, sick, hurting and then— I was unconscious.

 

“Mmm,” I groaned as I awoke and tried to move, wanting to wipe the blood from my eyes, though the task proved impossible. My body hurt all over and my arms were too heavy to lift. I blinked and blinked until I could finally see through the red sticky haze. I was no longer lying on the floor of the dining hall, as I’d expected to find myself. I was not lying in a bed of velvet and satin, with my lovely mistress attending me. I was, instead, sitting slumped to one side, looking at the dashboard of my Impala. Confusion rolled in like a fast-moving thunderstorm, the flashes of memory shaking me like bolts of lightning. I slowly looked over my surroundings, taking in the nightmarish scene. There was no dining table filled with elegant guests— only a warped and bloody steering wheel. There was no crystal chandelier glinting light over decadent food— only a shattered windshield reflecting moonlight over the gore that surrounded me. Panic gripped my gut in a vise clamp as realization slowly flooded over me. Horror engulfed my mind in an unforgiving wave as my head lolled to the right, knowing what waited for me there. My heart pinched with pain, fracturing into a million tiny shards of heartbreak all over again as I saw my wife. Her body lay half in the car and half on the hood, showered in broken glass. She didn’t move, not even to breathe. She was gone. I knew she was gone. I began sobbing quietly, with barely enough strength even for that. I knew my wife was dead and I knew, without daring to look in the back seat, that my daughter was as well. Our beautiful little girl.

Slowly, I remembered it all. The long stormy ride home from the drive-in theater a few towns over. My back killing me in the seats and the pills that she’d never seen me take during the film. My stubbornness, thinking that I was fine to drive, never allowing anyone else to handle the Impala, my baby. Carrie had never even known the danger they were in, letting me drive—so trusting. She never knew that I would kill her and our beautiful daughter like this. She’d trusted me. They both had trusted me, and I killed them. The guilt tore through me like the steel blades that I’d watched rip into the beast’s writhing carcass in what I now knew must have been a dream. Weary to the bone, I closed my eyes to darkness, not wanting to see what lay around me. Exhausted and weak, I felt myself falling away, fading into nothing. I hoped I was falling into her arms, waiting for me on the other side. I hoped that I was finally dying.

I seemed to be falling for a long time, until finally I saw a shimmer of light in the distance. This is just like they say, I thought, the white light. I moved toward the beckoning glow, hopeful and ready to see the shining faces of my two girls. As I grew closer, I heard voices calling from far away, beyond the light ahead, “Such a lovely place. Such a lovely face.” An echo of something familiar, though I couldn’t remember from where. The light grew closer until at last I had reached it. I was horrified to see that the source of the light had been an old black iron lamp post in the middle of nowhere. It felt like the wind had once more been knocked out of my lungs as the memories came rushing back in, flooding my mind in suffocating waves. Beyond the lamp post there was a light in the doorway, pulling me forward against my will. And then, she was there beside me, close enough to whisper, “Welcome, to the Hotel California.”

“But I left. I can’t be here.” I gasped in small breaths, trying to push her away from me, trying to untangle her arm from mine, but it was useless. She was so strong, and I was beyond weak.

“Oh no, you never left us, Michael,” she laughed. “You can check-out any time you like, lover, but you can never leave.” She brushed a light kiss on my cheek and guided me inside as I screamed, “Nooooo!” I fought to escape, clawing at the frame of the door though it did no good. I felt as though my struggles were a feather against the wind. She easily propelled me across the threshold and back into my own personal hell. And again, I screamed as the hotel swallowed me up in its darkness, the candlelit doorway closing behind me yet again. “You can check out anytime you want, but you can never leave,” the words echoed again and again all around me, mingling with the laughter of the countless souls who shared this gilded cage with me.