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He walked down the dark alleyway quickly. Pausing only to catch his breath at a street corner, he watched the beacon of light in the street lamp flicker and die out. A chill went through his body and he shivered. A sick feeling of being watched made him spin around. There was no one there.
“Nerves, it's just nerves. I need to calm down,” he told himself, starting along the street again, this time quickening his pace.
While walking, he reflected back on what he had just done. A terrible feeling of guilt overpowered his fear.
“Well, she was going to die soon anyways,” he reassured himself, not realizing he had said it out loud.
Suddenly, he noticed a creaky yet charming sign hanging from a building a few feet ahead of him. It read “Nightshade Inn.”
He hesitated. He was supposed to meet a man at 10 AM sharp at Crystal Hotel if he was to get his reward, but one more minute in this dark, grim neighborhood and he would go crazy! So he stepped inside.
The lobby was lit only by small crackling flames in the fireplace. Laying beside the fire was a large, brown dog. The building was obviously old, but warm and charming at the same time. Rugs decorated the floor and beautiful paintings hung on the walls. A frail, old lady wearing a flower-patterned dress stood smiling behind wooden receptionist desk. Behind her was a small, white bird perched on a post.
“Why, hello sir. What can I do to help you?” she questioned politely.
“Could I get a room, please?”
“Of course, just sign in first.”
The man stepped forward and signed his name in the guest book under “Robert McGuire” and “William Rochester.” Neither of them had signed out yet.
“How long will you be staying, sir?”
“Just one night.”
“That will be just $50, sir, with breakfast.”
“Only $50! With breakfast?”
“Yes, sir. We believe in providing our customers with the most comfort at the cheapest price,” the lady said, her smile widening.
“Wow, I should come here more often.”
The old lady smiled and handed him a set of keys. After giving a small tour of the first floor, she took him up the dusty stairs and into a candle-lit hallway.
“There are only five rooms in the inn. We rarely get any customers in this sort of place anyway. All the rooms are empty, so take your pick.”
After choosing a comfy room with a nice large bed, he collapsed onto the bed, thinking how odd it was to find such a wonderful and cheap hotel in the middle of such a bleak, gloomy place. A few minutes later, he had fallen asleep.
Horrible nightmares flooded his mind that night. Images of what had happened came back to haunt him. Her face kept coming back to him, silent and pleading. The next moment, she loomed over him, holding a knife. His knife! Suddenly it was he who was staring in open-mouth terror, silent and pleading...
He woke up with a gasp. Panting and drenched in sweat, he sat up and turned on the lights, clutching at his racing heart. It took him a moment to remember where he was. He stayed there for a few moments, until finally, his heart resumed a steady beat. Feeling extremely thirsty, he decided to go downstairs and get a glass of water.
Though he was clearly surprised to find the old woman still sitting up at this late hour, the old woman didn't seem to be surprised to find him there. Smiling, she asked, “May I help you?”
“I would like a glass of water, please.”
She stood up and turned around, grabbed a glass from a cupboard, filled it with water, and held it out to the man.
Desperately, he grabbed the water and took a nice, long sip. The water cooled as well as calmed him. Quietly, he sat back against a sofa next to the fireplace and rested. All the time, the old woman watched him kindly, always smiling that friendly yet somehow mysterious smile.
He noticed again the large brown dog dozing by the fireplace. It seemed to be undisturbed by the new resident and kept on sleeping. Smiling, he leaned forward. He had always loved dogs in his long-lost childhood days. He reached his hand out and patted the dog gently. Immediately, he knew something was wrong. He ran his hands over the dog's back. The fur was soft, but startlingly cold. He pushed the dog harder, willing it to be alive, but finally knew the dog was dead when he had turned it onto its back.
“Ma'am!” he exclaimed, “You're dog is dead!”
“Oh, it isn't my dog. It died about five years ago.”
He turned around and stared at her. She seemed quite unmoved and continued to smile at the man.
He got up suddenly and strode over to the bird behind the desk. He poked it gently, then harder and harder. He pulled it off its perch and stared at its eyes, glazed over with death. The same glazed over look she had worn just after she died. Panicking, he dropped the bird, and it fell to the floor with a soft thump.
“What is the meaning of this?”
She watched him with amused eyes, forever wearing that mysterious smile, not answering.
“In sudden realization he cried, “Didn't you say that there was no other guest but me? Yet two men are signed in but not signed out!”
He grabbed at the guest book, ripping a page, and looked at it carefully. Sure enough, all the names were signed in, but not signed out.
He ran to the door, trying to pull it open, but it would not budge.
Turning back, he faced the old woman, who had not moved a muscle. Suddenly, her eyes seemed to light up with a black fire burning within. Her lips were twisted into a cruel smile. Her skin was wrinkled and gnarled. Even the decorations on her dress seemed to be in the shape of demons, not flowers.
“I didn't force you to come here. You came here, driven by your own guilt from your own deeds. It's not just you, many others have come before; none have come out. You can never escape the consequences for your own deeds, the same way you will never escape this place.”
And with that she laughed, a shrill, high unnatural laugh so unlike the kind lady before, as he stared in open-mouth terror, silent and pleading.