“Yes, my plane leaves at eight. It should be arriving around three, so come by the airport about then. I'm sure Eryn will be glad to see me. Tell her I love her.”
I ended the call and slid my phone into my pocket. Fortunate timing, as the receptionist finished signing me in and handed me the room key. I thanked him and grabbed my bag, then headed for the elevator.
Two people stepped out of the elevator as I arrived. Good, I would be riding alone. I reached out and pressed the third floor button, but just as the doors were closing, a young woman who had checked in just after me rushed in. “Sorry, sorry, I didn't think I was going to make it.”
“You should be more careful,” I said as the elevator began to rise.
“I know,” she said with a smile. “I just didn't want to wait for the next one, and we are going to the same floor anyway, so.” She cleared her throat and turned away from me. I couldn't tell if she wanted to avoid conversation, or if she just found the situation awkward. I was happy to keep silent. After a long moment, though, she spoke up again.
“Um, did I hear you say that you were a doctor?” she asked curiously. I narrowed my eyes and nodded.
“If you're referring to the name I gave when I checked in-”
“Dr. Damen Black, correct?”
I sighed and gritted my teeth. “That is correct.”
“Oh, I'm sorry! I wasn't, like, spying on you or anything. I just heard and got curious. I mean, you look rather young to be a doctor.”
“Er, well, maybe not that young, but, um...” She was blushing scarlet and stumbling over her words. The elevator couldn't stop soon enough.
“You fancy me, is that it?” I said. “It's happened before, but you're not going to get anywhere with strangers you meet in hotel elevators.”
Her face burned crimson and she turned away. The elevator halted and the doors opened. I stepped out and started down the hallway, but then I heard her say, “I'm sorry.”
I looked over my shoulder to see her bowing her head. I blinked. “What?”
“I'm sorry,” she said again. “I didn't mean to trouble you. Please forgive me.” Without another word, she turned in the opposite direction and walked away, stepping to a door on the far end of the hall and going inside.
I sighed again and walked on until I found my room. I slid the key card into the lock and the door opened. I had stayed in this hotel once before, though in a different room. I flipped on the light switch and glanced about. Modest sized with just one bed, a television opposite and a large window on the other side with the blinds drawn shut.
Dropping my suitcase, I sat down and began to undress. I flipped on the TV for some background noise, though I didn't pay much attention to it. My mind was on different thoughts. Mostly I thought about Eryn, how she would hug me when I got home and how I would carry her most of the day tomorrow. The thought brought a smile to my face. She did enjoy being daddy's little girl.
“And maybe, if I'm lucky, there won't be anymore stupid conferences I have to go away for,” I murmured. I left the TV on as I showered, then laid down in bed and watched it for a bit. The news held nothing but tragedy and everything else was either sub-grade movies or terrible, crude, or violent shows.
I turned the TV off and set the alarm for six. It was early, but I needed to get to the airport in time. I thought about staying up a while longer and reading, but I needed all the sleep I could get.
I hated sleeping alone.
* * *
There was a knock on my door. I opened my eyes and glanced at the clock, but it was hardly past midnight. I frowned and pushed myself up, then went to the door. “Who is it?” I called. There was no answer. I frowned and turned to go back to bed, but there was another knock. “Who is it?” I said again, more impatiently. Still no answer.
I stared at the door for a time then slowly turned back. Another knock. I grabbed the door handle and twisted it open. “What are you do-” There was nobody there. No matter where I looked, there was nobody down the hall. Even if there had been a prankster, I would either have seen them running off or a door closing nearby.
“Or maybe they slipped past you and are already inside your room.”
I drew in my breath and spun around toward the sound of the voice, but there was no one there. I frowned and turned on all the lights, searching everywhere. Nothing.
“Am I going mad?” I muttered. “Lack of sleep perhaps. Yeah, must be it.” I sighed and returned to bed after shutting off the lights once more, then closed my eyes, but sleep took longer to come to me this time.
* * *
“Isn't he the one whose whole family was killed when he was a child? No, he was sixteen, and I heard he was the one who killed them. No, that couldn't have been it! It was a fatal car accident and by some miracle he was the only survivor. A miracle? Or perhaps an act of devilry.”
I opened my eyes and sucked in a deep breath. Glancing to the side, the clock said it was only a bit after one. My skin was soaked in sweat and there was an awful taste in my throat. What were those voices... Oh, I remember. Just an old nightmare keeping me awake. But why now?
I kicked the covers away, feeling uncomfortably hot. My head was pounding and my eyes aching. I felt nauseated and thought about going to the bathroom, but I didn't want move. Why do I have a migraine now? I've never suffered from them before.
“When you're running away from something internal, sometimes it will become an external pain.”
“What?” I murmured, keeping my eyes shut. “Who are you?”
“I think you know that already,” the voice said, chuckling. “But if you want to keep denying me, I could make things a bit more interesting for you. I could show you what I am instead.”
“I just want to sleep,” I growled. I pressed my face against the pillow, trying to take the pain away, but the pillow was warm and drenched in sweat and only made me feel worse.
“Remember that lovely young woman you met on your way up here earlier? Oh, but you didn't care for her, she was just a bother, I know. I could handle that for you.”
“What are you talking about?” I whispered.
“You know exactly what I'm talking about, Dr. Black.”
There was a muffled scream outside my room. I blinked and took a deep breath. The pain in my head subsided a bit and I felt like I could stand and walk. I knew I shouldn't go out there, but I did it anyway. I opened my door and peered around the hallway, breathing deeply.
It was dim, except for the few lights on the walls. I swallowed and took a step out, remembering how the girl was all the way down the hall. I kept telling myself this was a stupid idea with every step, but I didn't stop. A flash of movement caught my eye and I saw a hand being dragged through a doorway before the door slammed shut.
I stood frozen staring at the door, even as I heard sounds behind it. They started out as quiet murmurs then turned into soft wails before becoming high pitched screams. I shouldn't go in there. I had to go in there. I grit my teeth and ran to the door, slamming my foot against it and breaking it down.
The stench of blood overwhelmed my nostrils and my migraine returned in full force. I gasped and pressed back against the wall, seeing the girl's body lying on the bed. A man stood over her, a knife in his hand. He was covered in blood. To my horror, I realized that he had cut her open from the neck downward, her skin peeled back.
I staggered out of the room before the man could turn to see me. I slammed the door shut and fell to my knees, feeling like I was going to retch. A deathly silence fell over the hallway, chilling me to my bones.
I had to get back to my own room. I stood slowly, shaking, then leaned against the wall and limped across the hall. What I saw in there wasn't real. It couldn't have been. This was just a horrible nightmare. That's all this was.
I gripped the handle to my door and wrenched it open. But inside wasn't my hotel room; it looked like an operating room at a hospital. I gazed in for a moment, taking a deep breath, then stepped inside.
In the center of the room was an operating table, with a young girl strapped to it. She was covered in scars and caked with blood, tear stains streaking her face. Next to her was a small table filled with sharp instruments, all of which were covered in blood and some in rust.
She opened her eyes and looked up at me, then started crying. “N-no, not again, please, not again...”
I slowly backed away, chest heaving. I stumbled out and the door slammed shut. This was not my room. I must have opened the wrong door. That must have been it. I ran across the hall and tried another door. What I saw in there wasn't much better from the other rooms.
Bodies hung from the ceiling as if it were a meat locker. Some were skinned and dripping blood, others were cut open from the neck down. Some were missing limbs, others heads. The overwhelming stench of blood and decay was strong in the room. I pulled out just as I heard footsteps approaching from inside, slamming the door shut before I saw anyone.
“How long are you going to keep running? Come, come, Damen. I told you I would show you who I am. Why are you so surprised at what you see?”
“Shut up,” I hissed as the voice echoed in my head. “Just shut up!” I ran to another door and pushed it open. There on a metal table was a girl with all her limbs hacked off, a bloody saw near her. She was still alive. She was crying. Oh god, she was still alive.
“Just stop running and accept it.”
I escaped that hellish sight, sweat soaking my face and the back of my neck. I wanted to retch so badly, but for some reason I couldn't.
“Have you figured out who I am yet, then, Damen? I'm sure you have.”
“No,” I whispered, squeezing my eyes shut. “It isn't true.”
Then he grabbed me from behind, holding me in a headlock. His arm dug into my throat, cutting off my air. I gasped and tried to pull away, but he was stronger than me. He leaned down and hissed in my ear, “You still won't accept it, will you? You're pathetic. You're weak. You know what you are. You should embrace it.”
I struggled in his grasp, then felt cold metal press against my face, just under my left eye. There was a sharp point there. He held a knife against me, even as I struggled in his grasp. No, no, god, anything but that.
“Damen,” he whispered in my ear, his voice low and hissing, almost like a snake. “I want out.”
Agony ripped through me and it felt as though my skull were splitting open. My vision grew white and I screamed. Something warm splattered over me and the screaming intensified. For a moment, I thought he had actually ripped my eye out, but then I realized I wasn't in pain any longer, and I wasn't the one screaming. It was someone below me.
There was that girl, the one I met in the elevator, horror in her eyes and tears streaming down her face. Her blood stained my hands and felt so warm against my skin. It felt good. I tingled all over with the sensation and licked a small drop of blood off my cheek.
“Wh-why,” she cried. “Wh-why a-are you doing this?”
“Because I can,” I breathed. My grip tightened around a bloody scalpel which had cut her open.
No. Stop. What am I doing, what am I saying? Make this stop, make this stop!
“It will never stop. This is who you are. Embrace it.”
I burst out of the room and ran down the hallway, still covered in blood. There was no one there, yet I could hear breathing, smell the living from within their rooms. I approached one of the doors and pushed it open, hungering to claim another.
A little girl sat on the bed, a terrified look in her eyes. I stalked forward, my breaths heavy, the knife shaking in my hand. She whimpered and shrank back, hiding her face under the covers. “Go away, go away!”
“Shhhh,” I murmured, reaching one bloody hand toward her. “Don't be frightened, my dear. Daddy's here, now. Nothing will hurt you.”
“S-stop, you're scaring me!”
“Eryn,” I growled, “come to your daddy, right now!”
“Eryn!” I grabbed her and pulled her close. She cried out and I pressed the knife against her throat. “Don't make a sound now, darling. We wouldn't want to disturb anyone else.”
No. God, no, don't make me do this. She's my daughter, she's my little girl, my only child. Don't make me do this.
“You've already done it once before, in a past life. Or perhaps it was a dream, but that doesn't mean you didn't do it.”
No. I'm not the psychopath you claim I am. I am not like you.
“Are you sure?”
“Damen, listen to me. You're not a monster.”
I looked down and saw that I was in bed with Caroline, holding her in my arms. Her skin felt so soft, so warm. She looked so healthy and alive. I swallowed hard and ran a shaking hand through her hair. “Am I not? But how can you be so sure? You don't know the real me. Nobody does.”
“I know you better than anyone else.” She pressed her hands against my cheeks and gazed into my eyes. “You're my husband, and I love you. And I know you love me, too.” She smiled that sweet smile that always melted my heart. “That's enough for me.” She leaned in and pressed her lips to mine. So warm.
“She claimed you were a good person, that you weren't a monster. How interesting. She was so vulnerable at that moment. You took notice of this. You could have done anything you wanted to her in that moment.”
My hand curled around her neck and I pressed my lips to her forehead, murmuring, “I love you so much, Caroline.” And then I squeezed. She was silent and still, and even as she fell limp in my arms, her body was still warm.
No. No, no, no. This isn't real. I didn't kill her. I would never... she died of sickness and I couldn't save her; this isn't what happened!
“But it so easily could have ended this way. You thought of it in that moment. You could have done it.”
“I never would!” I turned around to face the man who had been haunting me. It was me, though he had a black patch over his eye. He grinned at me, which only made my rage build higher.
“I thought I told you, Damen,” he said. “These are things that you have done in the past – in dreams, perhaps. I am what you had the potential to become. I am still within you, deep down. You can't keep pushing me away. You can make room for these things in the hour of dusk.”
The alarm buzzed and my eyes snapped open. I was soaked in sweat with the covers tossed halfway off the bed. Six in the morning. The night was over. I made it.
I showered, dressed, and checked out of the hotel, taking a cab to the airport and boarding my flight. I slept the entire way back. The plane landed, I got off and retrieved my bag. My sister-in-law was waiting for me, holding Eryn in her arms.
“Welcome home!” she said with a smile. “She could hardly sleep last night she was so excited to see you.”
“Daddy!” Eryn reached out for me and wrapped her arms around my neck as I took her in my arms. “I missed you.”
I smiled and hugged her close, planting a kiss on her forehead. “I've missed you, too, my darling. Let's go home.”
As I carried her out to the car with me, I became aware of how fragile her small body was, how easily I could break it. I shuddered at the thought and glanced over my shoulder. I swore I saw him grinning at me.
It's not true. I'd be damned if it was.