Nance and I have been bogged down with work lately and decided to take a road trip out west. We’d been talking about it for a while: how we wanted to experience some of those fly-over states we never got a chance to go to when we were younger. We also wanted to go before we started trying for kids. On our trip up until this point, we’d seen a lot of quaint towns and met a lot of great people I’d never have expected. I didn’t know quite what to expect though. All we knew is this was a long overdue adventure. Starting in Chicago, we took Route 80 through Davenport, Des Moines, Omaha, Lincoln, Kearney, and Lexington, along with a number of smaller towns. We’re taking our time driving along. Up until now, it’s been the best vacation of my life.
In the morning, we decided to spend a lot of the day in Cheyenne, Wyoming. We stopped in at the Depot Museum and a buffalo ranch and enjoyed some of the best barbecue I’ve ever had. On our walk through the city, Nance and I found an eight-foot tall statue of a cowboy boot and, like the tourists we are, needed a picture. I asked the nice man who ran the hardware store at the corner to take the picture for us and it turns out he’s a photographer on the side and he took some amazing pictures. He even said he’d edit them for free. By the evening we were pretty tired, but wanted to get going. Nance and I hopped in the car and headed west down Route 80 again. We didn’t make it far. “I’m getting a little tired,” I told her.
“That’s fine,” Nance said while scrolling through her phone. “I found this cute bed and breakfast off the next exit we can stop into.”
“Do you think they’ll have room for us?”
“Good question,” she said, humming the end of her sentence. “It says it’s world famous so maybe not.”
“What are it’s reviews?”
Nance laughs. “Doesn’t have any. Can’t be that world famous I guess.”
We pull off the highway at the next exit and decide to be spontaneous – embark on that adventurous scent we’d always mused about. We passed by a colossal clay statue of Abe Lincoln overlooking the highway, and then just after came a sign overgrown with vines. I would have missed it if I didn’t turn my high beams on at the last minute. I slammed on the brakes before veering to the right to make the exit in time. “That was close,” Nance said.
I raised my eyebrows and released my breath, but didn’t say anything. Typically, when we get off at these exits there’s a gas station or MacDonald’s, or some kind of fast-food place immediately off the road. Here there was nothing. Nothing for around two miles until another dilapidated and overgrown sign nestled between a couple tree branches pointed us down a road on the left towards the bed and breakfast. “Would it kill them to invest in some better signs around here?”
Nance laughed again. “No kidding.” Suddenly the road turned to gravel and the car skipped off the pavement to a noisy bouncing path. For a while I thought a tire might pop. Nance said something about the road, but I couldn’t hear a thing. As the car bounced, so did the headlights’ beam along with it. And after a short trip down the path, I caught a glimpse of something shapely poking through the dark” the outline of a small wooden house. “There it is,” I said.
“Do you see it?” I pointed to the right and Nance squinted hard, but finally caught the house.
We pulled up beside the house and parked on the grass. When we got out, I saw bits of pavement sticking out between the tufts of grass – the driveway that once was. “This place looks so dark. It doesn’t look like anyone’s been here in years,” I said. “Are you sure anyone’s home?”
“I don’t know,” Nance mumbled as she contemplated the house. “I don’t know about this. It looks pretty dead. Maybe we should go find a –”
Then the lights flicked on and the door smashed open. A number of large moths quickly gathered around the humming porch light, then an elderly man stepped out. The porch creaked beneath his feet like it would collapse if a stray feather landed on it while he stood there. I noticed quickly that he was holding a book, tucked beneath his arm. “Here for the lodging?” he asked in a harsh smoker’s voice.
“Yeah. We found you guys online. This is a bed and breakfast, right?” I said.
He hesitated, wet his lips, then said, “Yes, yes. You came to the right place. Come on in.” He waved us on. “My name’s Jim Baker. What’s yours?”
“I’m Stew Daniels, and this is my wife, Nance,” I responded.
“Hi,” Nance chimed in. “Pleasure to meet you.”
“You as well,” he said as we passed through the front door. He smelled strange when I got close – terrible actually. But I didn’t say anything because I knew what Nance would say. She’d say I was being rude or a curmudgeon or something along those lines.
Inside the house was beautiful: a welcome surprise contrasting the decrepit wooden façade. It looked not dissimilar to a royal palace. “Wow. Look at this place,” I whispered to Nance.
“I know right?” she said. “I see why it’s world famous.”
“Right this way,” Jim said, as if to interrupt our excitement.
“Has anyone famous stayed here?” Nance asked.
Jim’s feet shuffled to a stop and he slowly spun back towards us. He fiddled with the book in his shaking hands. He looked off towards the ground and this was when I finally got a good look at his face for the first time: his skin sagged in a way that made him look perpetually sad, and his eyes were crossed, one of them discolored to a bright pale white. He sort of moaned as he pondered the question for an exceedingly long time. He finally looked to Nance. “No. Not in a long, long time.”
Despite his dismissive answer, Nance was still desperate to make conversation. She can always get people talking, but Jim seemed more stubborn than most. She pointed to the book under his arm and said, “What book are you reading?”
“Oh, this?” he said, showing us its front and back. Both sides were fitted with tattered black leather. The pages pushed each side outward and were stained yellow with either coffee or extreme age. “This is our guestbook. You ought to sign it on your way out. In fact, I insist you sign it.”
“We’d love to,” Nance said.
But the way he stared at her waiting for an answer made me uneasy. It wasn’t like we were going to flat-out say no, but signing that book seemed imperative to him – more so than actually getting paid for this stay. He needed us to sign the guestbook. I just didn’t know why.
Jim turned back down the hall and pointed towards one of the rooms. “Thelma,” he called. No answer. “Thelma, are you there? We have visitors.”
“On my way,” a delicate voice rang out. Moments later, an elderly woman emerged from the room. She was wearing a black and white dress and a colonial coif on her head. She looked like she was pulled right out of the 1800s. I guess that’s just the atmosphere this place is going for.
“What was that?” Nance’s voice shook as she jumped.
“I beg your pardon?” Jim said while Thelma kept on an unwavering smile.
“I felt something on my shoulder. Somebody tapped on it.”
“I assure you nobody was there,” Jim said. “Must have been a draft.”
“No, I’m sure of it. There were three taps. I felt it,” Nance responded.
I rested a hand on Nance’s lower back and pulled her close. “I’m sure it was nothing.”
She stopped protesting, but I could feel how tense she was. I rubbed her back as if that would help. She just shivered instead.
“You’ll be staying in room 2B,” Thelma said. “We’re quite busy around here, so I just finished cleaning the room.”
“Are you all booked up tonight?” Nance asked, her voice beginning to calm.
“I asked if you were booked up. Are there a lot of other guests here?”
Thelma thought about this, also for far too long. The question wasn’t complicated, but it seemed existential to our hosts. “No,” she finally answered.
When she turned around towards our room, I leaned into Nance’s ear and whispered, “What the hell?”
Thelma needlessly patted the bed. It looked like a nervous tick to me. “This is one of our more requested suites. It has a splendid view of the property,” she continued as she pulled the curtains aside and looked out the window to a pitch-black nothingness. “Well you’ll be able to enjoy that better in the morning. We have a complimentary breakfast from Hanz, our amazing chef. And if you need anything, don’t hesitate to ask one of us. Can I get you anything?”
Nance nodded. “A water would be great.”
“Absolutely,” Thelma answered while she was halfway out the door.
Nance sat on the edge of the bed while we waited for Thelma to return. “I could fall asleep right now.”
“Yeah, me too,” I said. “It’s been one long d–”
I was interrupted by a blood-curdling scream. It was a man’s voice that echoed throughout the house and shrieked with such force it caused the vase on the end-table to shake. The bedroom lights flickered and once they steadied I saw Nance’s face – pale with horror. “What was that?” she whispered.
“I don’t kn-”
“What was that? Stew?”
“I don’t know,” I repeated.
Then, as casually as she had left, Thelma returned with two cups of water. “Here we are,” she sang in her sweet voice, still bearing that perfect smile. Nance stared at her, waiting for an explanation. A punchline at least. I did too. “Anything else for you lovelies?”
“What was that?” I blurted out. Nance nodded to back me up.
“What do you mean?” Thelma asked.
“That screaming. You must have heard it too. It was so loud. It sounded like someone was dying.”
Thelma squeezed her lips together and shook her head, with a stumped pout. “I wish I knew. I didn’t hear anything. A scream? Huh. How peculiar.” Again, as she spoke, she began to shuffle out of the room. She continued muttering something, as she made her way down the hall that gradually became less and less audible.
Nance’s face was still resting in bewilderment. Jaw agape and eyes constricted. She slapped the bed with both hands. “Am I going crazy? You heard it too, right?”
“Of course I heard it.”
“Maybe we’re both going crazy. How did she not hear it?”
“I don’t know. Why don’t we just try to get some sleep. We’ll have a nice breakfast from that chef in the morning and then be on our way.”
Nance didn’t answer. She still wondered whether she was going crazy, shaking her head on the pillow and huffing every now and then. Right up until the moment she finally fell asleep.
The bed was comfortable, but I slept one of the most restless sleeps of my life. It was like my body was trying to tell me something. I tossed and turned from a disturbingly vivid dream. Nance and I were inside the dining room which I hadn’t seen yet and eating breakfast. We ate and spoke normally about our plans for the day’s drive and a few sites we wanted to see. But all the while, maggots crawled out of the floorboards and dropped from the ceiling. I remained calm because I didn’t want to frighten Nance, but the millions of tiny crawling legs and the eventual gnawing at my toes made me wince and eventually yell out. Nance continued to speak, but she began to wither and fade until she blew away in a thick cloud of ashes. And then I felt a heat on my back. It felt so real. I looked up to see Jim hanging from the ceiling fan, spinning ever-so slowly. The maggots continued to fall from his corpse and bite at my feet as if I were the dead body. Then I spun around to see where the heat was coming from: the wall was engulfed in an inexplicable fire that was ready to take the entire house down. And then a voice rang out shouting, “Get out! Get out! Get out!”
I sprung up, wide awake, sweating profusely. I could have sworn I heard a little girl’s giggle right when my eyes were opening. I sat upright and turned to my left, to see Nance sitting up too with baggy eyes, disheveled hair and a stricken expression. “What’s wrong? Nance?”
She raised her finger, shaking all the way. I followed it to see she was pointing to her suitcase. All her clothes were thrown everywhere in the room: on the bed, across the floor, over the empty wardrobe, in the bathroom, you name it. “Did – did you go through my stuff?”
“No,” I said. “I was sleeping until now.”
“I don’t like this place. I want to leave. Now,” she demanded. “We need to get out.”
“Get out?” I’ve heard that before. In my dream.
“Yes. Now. These people. This place. Something’s wrong.”
So we did. I helped Nance get all her clothes back in her suitcase as fast as we could at around 4am. I think we got everything, but I wasn’t sure. We both just wanted to get out as fast as possible. Once we thought we had everything together and stuffed into her bag, we headed for the door. I opened the bedroom door and Nance shuddered and jumped back with a shriek.
“Leaving? so soon?” Jim stood in the doorway, staring aimlessly into the room with his one good eye.
“Yeah. Thank you for everything, Jim,” I stammered. “We just have to get back on the road. Get going. You know.”
“But you just got here,” he said, as if deeply offended. Again, from underneath his arm he pulled out that black leather book and presented it to me. “You must at least sign the guestbook.”
“I think we’re just going to get going,” Nance replied.
“But you must sign the guestbook.”
Suddenly, Nance lunged at Jim. It was an aggressive display of fear I’d never seen from her. She planted both hands on Jim’s frail stomach and sent him tumbling out of the room. He grunted as he smacked into the opposite wall. “Run!” she said. I followed Nance’s lead and ran out the room, down the hall and towards the front doors. But I didn’t hear footsteps behind us – we weren’t being chased. We reached the door and Nance pulled at the handle, then pushed when it didn’t work. The doors were bolted shut.
“You simply must sign the guestbook,” Jim said, standing right behind us.
We spun around and faced him. He was holding that book in one hand, and a kitchen knife in the other. “You have to excuse me. We ran out of ink a long, long time ago.”
Nance finally broke down into tears. “Let us go, please. We won’t tell anyone. Just let us go.”
“I’m afraid I can’t. Not until you sign the guestbook,” Jim answered, his voice growing sterner.
“If I sign it, will you let us go?” I asked.
Jim didn’t say anything, but extended the knife and book towards me. I hesitated as I listened to Nance’s sobs and the raspy, labored breath of the old man. I could see no other choice. I let go of my bag’s handle and let it thump into the welcome mat. I took the knife from him, then pressed the blade into my fingertip. Nance shrieked when the blood spurt out. Then I took the book from him in my other hand and opened it. Every single page was the same. In a sample of the two-hundred-odd pages I flipped through, each inch of every page was covered in the words ‘GET OUT’ written in dried-up brown blood. I looked up to Jim, who waited with a toothless grin and that blank stare. I placed my bleeding fingertip on the page and made my entry, the same as the rest: GET OUT. Then I closed the book and handed it back to him.
“Thank you, sir. Much appreciated,” Jim said.
There was that giggling again – coming from upstairs. It was clearer this time and sounded like a group of little girls. “Go to hell,” I told him. Nance jiggled the door handle again and this time it swung open. I picked up my bag again and bolted out. When we looked back towards the house, Jim was gone and the house sat in the same total darkness we’d arrived to.
I tried looking up that review-less bed and breakfast as we drove to our next destination. I didn’t find any reviews or accounts of stays at the place anywhere, but I did find an article from April 18th, 1807. Its headline read ‘LOCAL COUPLE AND THIRTEEN GUESTS BURNED ALIVE’. The article went on to describe a couple, Jim and Thelma Banks, who ran a popular bed and breakfast in town until they locked the doors and set the house on fire, killing every guest inside. Firefighters arrived to nothing but a pile of charred wood and rubble. The only surviving object in the fire was the bed and breakfast’s guestbook: each inch of every page scrawled with only two words. Get out.