The Innkeeper’s Daughter
by Nathaniel Johnson
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
By late summer, morale was below sea level. Further raising tensions and pushing tempers, Sarah issued curt orders by memorandum and rarely helped out or spoke respectfully to her staff. Half of the housekeeping staff nearly walked out the morning that Sarah berated Carmen, one of the younger women working in the laundry room suffering severe cramps and unable to finish the day.
“I can’t pay you a full day’s wages unless you work the entire shift, understand?” said Sarah to the panic-stricken woman who didn’t dare go home with only partial pay.
“OK, I’ll stay — no problem!” cried Carmen, bent over, gripping her abdomen and weeping.
“You’re no good to me in that condition,” said Sarah. “Here’s your check — it’s for a full day. Don’t come back.”
“No, please!” screamed Carmen. “I’ll be OK, I promise.”
Sarah pushed the check into the young woman’s hand, turned and left the laundry room, aware that Carmen was awfully cute, frequently outspoken and generally too familiar with everyone, especially men.
By August, White Cliffs began to undergo a strange transformation. Guests in the Manor House were awakened by sudden noises in the corridors and what sounded like people groaning and shouting or running up and down the stairs. The disturbances continued for several nights. When residents complained, Sarah told them that they were imagining things, but the late-night interruptions continued. Sarah had the new part-time maintenance man check every room and examine the plumbing but he could find nothing out of order.
“Miss Little!” shouted old Mrs. Tisbury one morning in the living room after breakfast, “We have asked you repeatedly to look into the situation. I won’t be disturbed like this every night — it’s outrageous! Your mother and father would have never allowed it.”
“I’m sorry Mrs. Tisbury, but we can’t find anything wrong. Maybe it was a nightmare.”
“Now look here, young woman,” said Horace Arnold. “I heard it as well — so it isn’t our imagination.”
“We’re fed up. I’m prepared to call the police — or have an inspector come up to look things over,” said Mrs. Tisbury, shaking her finger in Sarah’s face. “Now do something — and quickly.
The last thing Sarah needed was a visit from the authorities; the Inn could be cited for numerous health and safety violations and she knew that neither the wiring nor the plumbing were quite up to code. An unhappy sheriff might close them down for the season, so Sarah agreed to stay at the Inn and sleep in her parents’ former quarters: perhaps she could discover for herself what the devil was going on in the Manor House after hours.
Her absence infuriated Sarah’s husband, who demanded she return to their cottage forthwith. Dan detested staying by himself with two small children and having to cook and clean up every day without help; besides he was hopeless dealing with domestic duties. The last time Sarah left Dan threatened to install his mother — a situation that Sarah could not tolerate. Dan won that round.
After sleeping at the Inn for one week and satisfied things had settled down, Sarah went back to her cottage to pacify Dan and the children. The following day, life at White Cliffs turned chaotic. Searching for her chef at breakfast, Sarah learned that Skinny Jimmy was in jail after being busted for marijuana and caught having relations with an underage girl in town leaving only Michael, the sous-chef, who barely knew how to grill hamburger. That afternoon, the head housekeeper quit. She claimed abuse and underpayment by her employer, and threatened to call OSHA over unsafe and unsanitary working conditions in the laundry.
Eventually, Sarah got Jimmy out of jail and helped to pay the lawyer, a family friend, who worked out a probation deal that required Jimmy to report each week to a parole officer, and a promise never again to touch drugs or underage girls.
When the staff heard that Sarah had helped Jimmy with her own money, there was applause and a general softening of the animosity all around. Even though she was fond of Jimmy, Rosy knew that Sarah’s parents would have winced at the money paid to spring him: Patsy and Stephen would have had a serious problem with that kind of deal.
Weird disturbances returned to White Cliffs later that summer and into autumn; they were louder, with increased ferocity and greater frequency. Guests reported seeing bursts of blue gas flames in the windows after midnight, wondering if there might be propane leaks in the kitchen stoves or living room gas-fires. One woman claimed seeing two ghosts gamboling on the rooftops and Emily Brooks swore that Patsy Little actually appeared at her bedside around two a.m.
One morning, a group of irate guests lined up at the front desk and demanded that something be done. When Rosy, who hadn’t slept well in a week broke down in tears and threatened to leave, Sarah had no choice but to resume her residency at the Inn in an attempt to correct an ever-increasing list of nagging discrepancies and guest grievances.
Losing patience with the escalating complaints from the more senior visitors, Sarah told Rosy that she planned to kick out all those old buzzards out after September and advertise the following spring for new clientele. Rosy didn’t think that was a very good idea at all but chose to say nothing; her own situation looked more dubious every day.
Things settled down a bit after Rosy’s scene with Sarah. The staff tried to keep everything moving smoothly although the guests were still griping about the food and the general condition of the Inn which had begun to look shabby and smell unclean. Sarah slept at the Inn during the week, returning to her cottage and her unhappy family on weekends. Finally, with no further late-night disturbances, Sarah moved back home to stay with her family.
The night Sarah returned home, banging noises erupted like hammer blows throughout the Inn. There were more blue flashes and several grayish apparitions floating about the Inn that some guests swore looked like Patsy and Stephen. One man swore he saw ghosts coming in and out of his bathroom all night. Sarah, awakened by a guest pounding on her cottage door at two in the morning, totally lost her temper.
“Now listen-up, everyone,” Sarah chided her distraught guests the next morning after breakfast. “The noises you heard were probably plumbing — that’s all. The plumbing is old, the Inn is old” and all of you are awfully goddamn old as well, she added to herself. “These lights you think you see are imagined, as are those so-called ghosts.”
A few guests began to mumble and shake their heads in disgust. Emily Brooks had been coming to the Inn for over twenty years. “We never had this problem before you took over, Miss Little. Seems to us you can’t cope.”
“Anyone who wants to leave now may do so — I’ll release you from your booking,” said Sarah without remorse. “Just don’t plan on coming back next year.”
“What?” shouted Alison Arnold, slamming her handbag down on the front hall table. “How dare you speak to us this in this manner?”
“I run this Inn, Alison,” said Sarah, “and I won’t have fools running around at night causing mayhem or spreading stupid stories. I won’t have it — plain and simple — so either everyone behaves or you’re out the door.”
“Your mother and father would have been mortified,” said Horace Arnold, his frail hands clenched and trembling.
“You leave my parents out of this,” screamed Sarah, waggling her finger. “I’m running things around here — so mind your own goddamn business, or get out!”
Rosy was shaken, devastated. She couldn’t imagine that anyone in the Little family would treat their guests so badly and she grieved that her tenure at White Cliffs was about over; unemployment benefits or no, this would have to be her last season. Rosy knew there really were spirits now in White Cliffs — unfriendly ones, who were possibly coming to do harm; Rosy herself had seen them, although she hadn’t told anyone. No question about it — those apparitions resembled Patsy and Stephen Little, and those ashen faces at the windows looked damn angry.
One night, Sarah Little wandered into the Inn’s lobby, wavering slightly as she walked. As Jenny the night desk receptionist remembered it, Sarah was drunker than Jenny had ever seen anyone at the Inn — worse than the old sots swilling martinis until sunset.
“The point is,” Sarah said, “the point is that this is a business, not some goddamn rest home. Jenny — I’ve — I've tried my best.”
“We know you have,” said Jenny, trying to be sympathetic. “We do know.”
“My husband doesn’t care, and my mother never gave me a chance. What the hell else am I to do?”
Jenny just shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe in time—”
“The point is... the point is that unless we control costs...” Sarah sat down, nearly falling down onto the lobby sofa. “The point is, that our guests are all antiques. When they go, we have no more regulars, then what?”
“Advertise — tell new folks about...” said Jenny, trying to be helpful.
“Forget about it, Jenny.” Sarah started to giggle, stood up, thought better of it and sat back down again. “Fact is, kiddo, we’re up that creek in a stone canoe without a paddle.”
Jenny laughed. “Oh, Sarah, it’s not really that...”
“Oh yes it is, my dear. Oh yes it certainly is! Only a matter of time now... only a little time.”
A fire started in the basement that night, where dozens of old, half-empty cans of paint, paint-thinner and varnish had been moldering for years. Weeks before, the town fire inspector had warned Sarah about frayed wiring and other hazards throughout the cellar, but Sarah postponed the clean-up because most of the part-time help had already quit and nobody else was willing to do that kind of dirty work. After the fire inspector left, Sarah realized that someone on staff had turned her in; she’d damn well find out who it was.
The fire spread without hesitation, and when Sarah heard shouts and saw the flames from her cottage, she rushed over with Dan to make certain all the guests got out. Everyone was accounted for, except Rosy. In a move that surprised everyone, Sarah raced inside the blazing lobby calling for Rosy. Two of the guests shouted after her, trying to explain that Rosy had gone next door to phone the fire department, but Sarah — convinced she’d seen Rosy go inside — wouldn’t listen.
Sarah disappeared into the smoke-filled front hallway as several of the guests, too frightened to go in after her, began shouting for help. Just as two of the men prepared to go inside, a roaring fireball erupted from underneath the building engulfing White Cliffs in flames and black smoke, mortally intensified by the chemical inferno raging in the basement.
Rosy returned to the burning Manor House only to be told that Sarah had gone in after her. The crowd of guests stood frozen — terrified by what might come next. Rosy ran towards the main entrance. “Sarah, I’m here!” She screamed repeatedly as one of the guests grabbed her, trying to keep Rosy from running into the doomed building. Within moments, the first floor collapsed feeding the fire, inviting total consumption by the greedy fury that was devouring the upper floors of White Cliffs.
Mrs. Tisbury sank to the ground, hysterical, and crying that Satan himself had summoned this inferno, not comprehending that Sarah, only moments ago, had virtually committed self-immolation.
When the first fire truck from Gull Cove arrived, Rosy turned strangely calm. She walked amongst the guests as if in a trance trying to reassure them, asking each person if there was anything she could do — a glass of water, fresh linen, a cup of tea? How about a nice cup of tea before bedtime?
The three cottages survived unscathed; all that remained of the Manor House were a few fallen beams, the scorched remains of the roof, and a lone, blackened brick chimney rising like a mad skeleton out of the rubble. In an unscripted coda to her career, Sarah had joined her parents and everyone else in the ceremonial scattering of ashes at White Cliffs.
* * *
Nobody really knew much about Sarah’s husband, so it didn’t come as a surprise that eventually, Dan nipped out with the insurance money after unloading the cottages and the land at a huge loss. He wanted out so that he could relocate back home in Pennsylvania, park the kids with his folks and find a job. Had she survived, Sarah would have struggled to rebuild the Inn and prove that she could be a success. Dan had always hated White Cliffs — it was a fitting finale as far as he was concerned.
Two years passed with no interest in rebuilding the Manor House. Grass and scrub grew up around the foundation and although there were constant rumors around town about a new building, no contracts came under agreement. The cottages declined and eventually, when taxes fell into arrears, the town took over the property. In the meantime, Dan and the children had disappeared.
For years, the sound of crying was heard every night at sunset and gruesome tales about the old inn and its unfortunate owners were retold many times. Now and then, kids from town visited the site on Halloween, and on a few occasions they got more than they expected. Some had nightmares for years.
Over time, the screaming ceased, the apparitions went into retirement and only haunting memories remained. Now and again, nearby residents — and an occasional guest from the old days — would visit the ruins where on a pleasant summer’s evening, just before sunset, one might sit quietly and wait — wait to hear the distant murmur of agreeable conversation, the gentle tinkle of ice in cocktail glasses, and the muffled clicks of a croquet match — all blended with the ceaseless breathing of the sea.
Copyright © 2010 by Nathaniel Johnson