by Jason R. DePriest
It was the summer of 1980. We’d just finished 6th grade and were feeling great. The top students in middle school were going to Washington, D.C. for a field trip and this year, they let the 6th graders join in. No parents for two weeks! Yeah, we had chaperones, teachers and whatnot, but not our parents. No history coloring their perceptions.
That first night, a Sunday, was when it happened. We were in a room with about ten other kids and a 9th-grade math teacher, Mr. Kowalski or something like that. The three of us — Dennis, Eric, and I — couldn’t sleep. None of us could sleep. We were too excited. But Mr. Kowalski was old, probably in his 50s but that seemed ancient to us back then. He nodded off around 11:00 pm.
It was after 1:00 a.m. that we decided to explore the hotel. Everyone else was too scared of getting in trouble, but we went, the three of us, giggling and sneaking down the hall. I don’t know what we thought we would do... ride the elevators all night? I don’t know. We should have stayed in the room, but “hindsight,” eh?
We almost panicked and ran when we heard one of the other doors on our floor open, but we didn’t. Eric kept us together and had us crouch down in the shadows so we’d be harder to see. We saw the strangest thing. One of the other 6th-grade teachers, Ms. Dawson, Regina Dawson came out of her room.
She shut her door, pulled a key out of her pocket, unlocked the door and went back inside. But when she opened it, there was this light. Not bright, but weird. Just weird, as when you leave the TV on and get snow on the screen.
Dennis, Eric, and I just looked at each other. We were ten years old, and it made no sense. Eric stood up and urged us to follow him: “Come on.” We followed him, as we always did, and we went up to Ms. Dawson’s door.
Eric bent down and picked something up. It was the key she’d used. She’d dropped it. Dennis suggested pushing it under the door so she wouldn’t get in trouble, but I wanted to use it. I couldn’t get over that light. It had been scary and soothing at the same time.
Now this key, it was just like any key you’d use to open a lock, I suppose, but it was insubstantial, maybe hollow aluminum. It was the only key on a large key ring. There was no number tag or anything to indicate it belonged to the hotel or to this room, but we didn’t think about that at the time.
I took the key from Eric and slipped it in the lock. It slid in like jabbing a pin through Styrofoam. No resistance. I turned it and there was a click. We all jumped, half-expecting Ms. Dawson to open the door and get all of us in major trouble.
Nothing happened, of course. Not yet.
I turned the handle and pushed the door just a tiny bit, just enough to see some of that light through the crack. It was... it was like joy, at the time, it was joy. That light gave me joy. In retrospect, it was more like a continuous orgasm, but I didn’t know what that was back then. I opened the door all the way and Eric, always the eloquent one, said, “What in God’s name...?”
I looked in and saw this... this tunnel. It was square-shaped, like a square hallway and the sides were glowing with that light. I went in without hesitation, my insides, my guts pulled me forward when my head should have kept me out.
Dennis was all, “This doesn’t look like our room” and Eric was all, “No, really? Thanks, Sherlock!”
They followed me, but I’d have gone on even without them. I didn’t feel any change in the floor, but the next thing I knew, I was climbing it like a ladder. We hit another door, but it pushed open. When I went up, I fell sideways. The ceiling was part of the wall of this new room, and it was pretty disorienting.
Now this is where it gets really far out, a totally broken reality. The floor... there was no floor. I was standing on something solid because I could feel it, but all I saw was this purplish mist and I was standing on it, standing in the air.
I looked down and saw tents, bivouac tents with fancy beds underneath them, tons of pillows and stuff. I could see people moving around between them, but the mist made it hard to see details.
Eric told us to look and pointed to a booth of some kind. Like one where you’d see some guy selling snow cones in a parking lot, but that’s not what this one was. There was this guy, I swear, he looked like every bad movie stereotype rolled into one. His black hair was pulled back. He even had a Fu Manchu moustache.
We went over to him, and he started talking to us in an overdone accent. He’s like, “Herro gentlemen.” Dennis asked him if he was an actor and his answer, which I will never forget was, “We all have a role to play.” He delivered that line straight, with no accent at all. Eric took charge and demanded to know what had happened to Ms. Dawson. He probably just wanted an excuse to yell at someone.
The man laughed and told us a story. That she was a debtor in that place and could not leave unless someone purchased her. That her purchase was unlikely because she was far too ordinary for the tastes of those who passed through here. Fine, I said, and pulled out the $50 in cash my mom had given me and handed it to him.
The man looked confused and said they don’t take that here, that they dealt in life. Before we could ask what he was talking about, he smiled and offered us some coins. “These are tokens,” he said. “You must pray our game.”
He directed us to what looked like an arcade, but the games weren’t Space Invaders or Pac-man. They were loud and obnoxious like vertical pinball. I think it’s called pachinko but I didn’t know that back then, either... So much I didn’t know... wish I never knew. Dennis was quite the pinball player so we let him start. But it looked easy enough, and we all joined in on our own boards.
The rewards that came out looked like mini-wheats or something with bits of rice stuck on the top. They stank though, and smelled like dirt. It’s the only smell I remember about the place.
When we were all out of tokens, we gathered our musty winnings and triumphantly dumped them on the counter.
The man looked them over noting that some had been broken. He dumped them in a machine that ground them up and weighed the results. “Ah, you are short! You need just one more. But no more tokens. We make other deal, yes?”
Eric told him, “Hell no. We’re getting out of here.” He grabbed me with one hand and Dennis with the other. The man called out, “You take my tokens; you owe me.”
Dennis pulled away and asked what we owed since he’d given us those tokens for free.
“Not free. Comprimentary. You stay or they not free.”
Dennis said if he can get a few more tokens, he’ll beat the machine until he has enough to get Ms. Dawson. I don’t even know why we cared about Ms. Dawson. We didn’t; she wasn’t even our teacher.
I didn’t hear what they said next. Someone else came up to us and spoke. The voice was feminine and alluring, something about it made me smile involuntarily. It lisped a little, but that didn’t matter at the time.
She said something like, “Ooh, new eyes, new eyes, do those eyes like what they see?” She was copper-colored, with red hair falling around her face. Her eyes bulged a bit and the shape was more round than oval.
Then... then she smiled. I screamed. I think Eric did, too. I suppose Dennis was still talking to the token man because he wasn’t with us when we ran. When she smiled her face split in two almost. There was... sorry... there was this line that split the front of her face from lips to forehead and it folded out, apart and it was all red in there, like the inside of a fish’s gills.
She was... it was... I think amphibious. That’s what I think. But to my ten-year old mind, it was just a monster. And I ran. I didn’t care about purple mists, or pleasurable lights, or Ms. Dawson. I just wanted to run.
I hit the hallway outside the room and kept running back to our room. I was beyond sneaking in; I banged on the door, yelling until someone came to open it.
Eric and I both were babbling, I guess. That’s what they tell me. We must have mentioned Ms. Dawson, because that’s where they went. That’s where they sent the police. Kidnapping, child molestation, and murder. I don’t remember how many kids they found in her house when they searched it. Or how many were alive.
She wanted us to follow her in. She wanted to trap us there and use us up. At her trial, she claimed that she was over two hundred years old and needed the children’s essence to stay young. Total insanity, right?
Dennis was in her room when they went that early morning. There were no swirling mists or odd lights. No tents or man selling tokens. Just Dennis babbling and drooling on the floor and Ms. Dawson in the bathroom brushing her hair like nothing was going on. At least, that’s what I heard.
I’ve visited Dennis a few times at the home, you know. He still talks like the kid he was back then. He says he met Mr. Rourke, the guy from Fantasy Island. He says that Rourke told him he should be honored to serve as fodder for Dawson’s ridge world. That only the brightest and most powerful humans come to possess them and that keeping them running is a lifelong burden. To be fuel for a dream was a small price to pay to keep the toys of the gods in top shape.
Dennis believes it, too. He thinks he helped Regina Dawson continue her benevolent reign of power in the ridge world opened up by that stupid key.
He doesn’t know she died in that asylum shortly after being incarcerated “for the remainder of her natural life.”
“Natural life.” That’s a funny phrase, isn’t it?
Eric and I never talk about it. Never. But I might just bring it up... soon. You see, I did some digging and managed to purchase the key from an unscrupulous attendant at the asylum where Regina died. The key, the one from that hotel room floor.
I don’t think Ms. Dawson died at all, not really. I think she went to her ridge world to stay. I think she has a lot of questions to answer and a lot of sins to speak for. So we may not meet again, but I am glad I’ve been given the chance to tell someone what really happened.
Copyright © 2012 by Jason R. DePriest